Stanford scientists discover new plant protein

Dried plant seeds can remain dormant for a long time, up to a thousand years, before they begin to germinate when placed in water. This “dormancy” protects the embryo inside the plant from environmental hazards until conditions become favorable for growth and survival. However, the mechanism by which the seed recognizes water and activates cellular activity has so far remained a mystery.

A new study, conducted jointly by Yanniv Dorone and Sue Rhee of Carnegie University and Stephen Boynes and Aaron Hitler of Stanford University, allowed scientists to identify a protein that plays a crucial role in this process. It stops germination if the soil is not sufficiently saturated with water, and restarts it when conditions become favorable. The scientists’ work is important for understanding plant ecology under conditions of global warming and for the possibility of creating drought-resistant crops that can survive climate change and prevent global hunger. The scientists’ work was published in Cell.

For their work, the scientists used molecular, physiological and ecological research methods to identify a previously unknown protein, which they named FLOE1. When a dormant seed senses moisture, FLOE1 is almost instantly activated in cells to determine whether conditions are right for the seed to start growing. Because FLOE1 aggregation is temporary and reversible, it can act as a signal to start or stop germination, stopping the process if water availability is less than optimal, or allowing it to continue if there is enough moisture in the environment for successful growth.

The authors say their discovery could lay the groundwork for engineered crops capable of harnessing FLOE1’s abilities to withstand the deleterious effects of climate change. This would play a meaningful role in the fight against world hunger.