The function of a plant's roots go well beyond simply serving as an anchor in the ground. The roots act as the plant's mouth, absorbing, storing, and channeling water and nutrients essential for survival. Researchers have devoted tremendous effort to engineering plants that are more effective at these tasks in order to develop hardier forms that can withstand drought or low-nutrient conditions. In a new investigation, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) have taken another step toward achieving this goal. They identified two proteins that regulate whether a cell in plant roots forms a hair cell, which increases surface area for absorption, or a non-hair cell. Plants that overexpressed one of these regulators thrived despite being deprived of a key nutrient, phosphorus. "Normally plants respond to phosphorus deprivation by becoming smaller, which means less biomass, less food production, and less seed production," said Brian Gregory, Ph.D., an Associate Professor in the Department of Biology in Penn's School of Arts & Sciences and senior author on the paper. "The intriguing thing is, by overexpressing one of these proteins we identify GRP8, we were able to produce plants that don't show this kind of dwarfing nearly as significantly as normal plants under phosphorus starvation. That's the exact phenotype we want."
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