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UC San Diego biologists solve plant growth hormone enigma

Gardeners and farmers have used the plant hormone auxin for decades, but how plants produce and distribute auxin has been a long-standing mystery. Now researchers at the University of California, San Diego have found the solution, which has valuable applications in agriculture.

The study, published in the July 1 issue of the journal Genes and Development, describes the discovery of a whole family of auxin genes, and shows that each gene is switched on at a distinct location in the plant. Contrary to the current thinking in the field, the research shows that the patterns in which auxin is produced in the plant influence development, a finding that can be applied to improving crops.

"The auxin field dates back to Charles Darwin, who first reported that plants produced a substance that made them bend toward light," said Yunde Zhao, an assistant professor of biology at UCSD. "But until now, the auxin genes have been elusive. Our discovery of these genes and the locations where auxin is produced in the plant can be applied to agricultural problems, such as how to make seedless fruit or plants with stronger stems."

Applying auxin to plants can have many different effects. For example, it can promote root development in cuttings, stimulate fruit development in the absence of fertilization or, in excess, kill weeds. However, this study is the first to show what happens in a plant when auxin production is turned off.

The researchers identified a family of 11 genes (YUCCA 1-11) that are involved in the synthesis of auxin. In Arabidopsis--a small plant favored by biologists because it is easy to manipulate genetically--Zhao's team inactivated combinations of the YUCCA genes and studied the effects of the inactivations on plant growth and development.

"Plant biologists have wanted to do this experiment for a long time, but only recently have new genetic tools such as 'reverse genetics' and 'activation tagging' made it possible,"
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Source:University of California - San Diego


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