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Can you create a plant that ignores pain?

By Kate Wexell

On the microscope slides, Joey Wu, a junior at the University of Pennsylvania, looked at the leaves of plants. They appeared like blue paint splatters hanging in an art museum. He was researching to understand the power of apyrase, a protein found in plants that triggers their stress response.

Every year, over 250 million people face severe food insecurity. Climate change adds to this challenge through soil salinization, which is when salt collects in farmable lands. This can disrupt crop growth, lower yields, and threaten global food security. Wu chose to research plant resilience at the National Taiwan University to ensure plants can keep sprouting, even when their environment isn’t conducive to growth.

He did this by genetically modifying plants to either increase or decrease their apryase levels. According to Wu, apyrase is like a fire alarm.

“If everybody is in an office building and you pull a fire alarm, the whole building stop working. By adding more apyrase, this is like removing all the fire alarms in the building,” said Wu.

After adding apyrase to the plants using a promoter, Wu subjected the plants to stress conditions, such as large amounts of salt or water to simulate potential climate conditions. Then, he monitored whether the plants still synthesized proteins over time.

To do this, Wu used a sucrose treatment to show that the proteins were isolated. Then, he ran the plants through a machine to track the progression of ribosomes, which are the parts of cells that produce proteins. After that, he tracked whether the plant was still growing despite the stress condition.

Wu found that plants with higher apyrase levels demonstrated significantly greater resilience to climate-related stressors. Since their normal stress response was being interfered with, the plants became less sensitive to dangerous conditions. This means they could continue to thrive even in flood or drought conditions.

“Imagine the scenario of running from a bear. If one person is scratched while escaping, they might stop and focus on their injury, jeopardizing their chances of survival. However, the person without a stress response would continue to run, ignoring both the bear and the injury, which increases their likelihood of reaching safety,” said Wu. “That person would be like the plants on heightened apyrase.”

What makes this approach particularly promising is that apyrase is naturally present in all plants, making it easily replicable. Wu said that this technique would be particularly helpful for short-term plant growth.

Plants modified with higher apyrase levels could be more resistant to sudden cold snaps, ensuring crop stability in regions prone to unexpected temperature drops. In regions with inconsistent access to food due to droughts and floods, this technology could also provide a stable source of sustenance.

So, why hasn't this breakthrough been more prevalent in the agricultural sector? Right now, it is difficult to obtain the necessary materials to measure apyrase production. However, the ability to create resilient plants may hold the key to food security and ecological stability in the future.

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