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Can super-speedy plant cells feed a growing population?

New research will investigate whether specialised plant “train tracks” that move molecules in cells could help feed the growing population.

Plants are the basis of food security and energy across the globe, yet humanity faces a major challenge due to climate change and population growth. To address these challenges, there needs to be 60% more food produced by 2050 – in a period where both cold and warm temperature shocks are occurring with increased frequency. New insights to harness plant growth and resilience to stress are required to help solve this issue.

Now, a scientist at the University of Warwick has been awarded funding to investigate actin – a natural molecule in plant cells. Actin networks serve as “train tracks” within plant cells, responsible for moving other components. It is known that faster moving actin leads to bigger plants with more biomass.

However, scientists do not know the exact mechanism of how this occurs and the interactions which lead to this movement within cells.


Research Fellow Joe McKenna, of the University of Warwick’s School of Life Sciences, aims to answer this question in his three-year long study. He said: “At a cellular level, plants display some of the fastest movements known in biology. Organelles show rapid and coordinated movements within plant cells. This movement is critical for normal growth and development as well as responses to environmental conditions – changing shape and moving during hot or cold temperatures.


“While we do not know the exact mechanism of how this movement occurs, we know it is driven by the actin ‘cytoskeleton’ – a skeletal-like network supporting the cell – and myosin motor proteins (which act like trains travelling along the actin tracks). When the actin cytokskeleton is disrupted, movement within the cell stops.

“I will uncover how the Endoplasmic Reticulum (ER) and nucleus interact with the actin cytoskeleton. The ER is responsible for making most of the plant biomass we eat and is known to rapidly remodel during normal development and environmental stress. The nucleus is highly mobile and its interaction with the actin cytoskeleton promotes plant growth via DNA replication.


If we can understand how actin interacts with these organelles and the proteins involved, we can engineer these systems to improve plant growth and develop plants which are much bigger and resistant to temperature stresses. It is known that changing the rate of organelle dynamics has a direct effect on plant growth. Faster movement results in larger plants.”


Dr McKenna, who was awarded the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBRSC) Discovery Fellowship to fund £535,000 for his study, will used specialised imaging with fluorescent reporters and a technique to label specific proteins known as proximity labelling. His research proposes a sustainable way to enhance agriculture.


Further details on Dr McKenna’s research found here


21 March 2023

Wed 22 Mar 2023, 09:25 | Tags: Plants, cell biology, School of Life Sciences, Life Sciences, farming