skip to primary navigationskip to content
 

Plant ‘thermometer’ discovered that triggers springtime budding by measuring night-time heat

last modified Nov 01, 2016 11:02 AM
A photoreceptor molecule in plant cells has been found to moonlight as a thermometer after dark – allowing plants to read seasonal temperature changes. Scientists say the discovery could help breed crops that are more resilient to the temperatures expected to result from climate change.

An international team led by SLCU scientists has discovered a ‘thermometer’ molecule that enables plants to develop according to seasonal temperature changes.

Farmers and gardeners have known for hundreds of years how responsive plants are to temperature: warm winters cause many trees and flowers to bud early, something humans have long used to predict weather and harvest times for the coming year.

The latest research pinpoints for the first time a molecular mechanism in plants that directs developmental changes as a reaction to temperature cues – often triggering the buds of spring we long to see at the end of winter.

The new findings, published today in the journal Science, show that molecules called phytochromes – used by plants cells to detect light during the day – actually change their function in darkness to become cellular temperature gauges that measure the heat of the night.

During the day, light causes the molecules to fluctuate rapidly between active and inactive states – several times a millisecond. In their active state, phytochrome molecules restrict plant growth. Once the sun goes down, these molecules change states, and the pace they change is “directly proportional to temperature” says lead researcher Dr Phil Wigge, who compares it to mercury in a thermometer. The warmer it is, the faster the molecular change – stimulating plant growth. 

The light-sensing function of phytochromes still allows plants to read seasonal changes through the varying length of daylight – and some plants rely on this. Species such as daffodils, however, have greater temperature sensitivity, and can flower months in advance during a warm winter. Wigge believes phytochrome thermo-sensing evolved after light-sensing, and co-opted the biological network already used for light-based growth during the downtime of night.     

The new findings are the culmination of twelve years of research involving scientists from Germany, Argentina and the US, as well as the Cambridge team. The work was done in a model system, a mustard plant called Arabidopsis, but Wigge says the phytochrome genes necessary for temperature sensing are found in crop plants as well.

With weather and temperatures set to become ever more unpredictable due to climate change, researchers say the discovery that this light-sensing molecule moonlights as the internal thermometer in plant cells could help us breed tougher crops. 

Coronavirus

 

SLCU Latest Updates

(for staff & students)

 

University of Cambridge Guidance 

 

We would like to thank NHS staff, key workers and volunteers who are working tirelessly throughout the ongoing coronavirus pandemic in the UK. Our thoughts are with those whose health is impacted here in the UK and around the world.

 

 

Supported by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation

RSS Feed Latest news

2020 Waddington Medal

Mar 29, 2020

SLCU Director Professor Ottoline Leyser has been awarded the 2020 Waddington Medal by the British Society for Developmental Biology (BSDB).

Discovery of expanding pectin nanofilaments that manipulate plant cell shapes

Feb 27, 2020

Scientists have discovered new filamentous structures within plant cell walls that influence cell growth and help build complex three-dimensional cell shapes.

Random gene pulsing generates patterns during development of living systems

Feb 19, 2020

A team of Cambridge scientists working at the intersection between biology and computation has found that random gene activity helps patterns form during development of a model multicellular system.

View all news