It’s possible to influence growing, flowering behaviour using only coloured light

British and European researchers have developed a special system that uses coloured lights to control different cellular processes in plants. Red light, for example, is used to switch on a gene whereas ambient white light is used to switch it off or reverse it.

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NORWICH, UK – British and German researchers have shown that coloured light can be used to switch plant genes on or off to control specific activities, like growth or flowering.

This work is part of the field of optogenetics, which means using light to precisely control biological processes. It hasn’t previously been used in plants, according to a professor in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of East Anglia, because plants naturally respond to light as they grow so any genetic switches controlled by light would be constantly activated.

“We have developed a special system which overcomes this problem and allows us to control different cellular processes in plants using light,” says Dr. Ben Miller, one of the scientists working on the project.

The new tool is called PULSE – Plant Usable Light Switch Elements – and is suitable for plants growing under normal day and night cycles. According to Miller, red light can be used to cause gene expression at a precise moment, while ambient white light can be used as an off switch to reverse the process.

The system can be used to control physiological responses in plants, such as their immune response, or development, growth, hormone signalling and stress responses.

“In the future, this research might mean that we can modulate how plants grow, and respond and adapt to their environment, with light cues,” he says, adding that applying the technology to agricultural crops could improve plant defences against pathogens and improve yields.

The research was led by Heinrich Heine University and the Cluster of Excellence on Plant Sciences (CEPLAS) in Düsseldorf, where researchers first applied PULSE in thale cress (Arabidopsis), a member of the mustard family. They then combined the tool with CRISPR/Cas9-based technologies to control physiological responses in tobacco plants and thale cress.

“Using light to control biological processes is far less invasive and more reversible than using chemicals or drugs, so this new system in plants is a really exciting new tool for us to answer fundamental questions in plant biology,” Miller explains.

The work is still in its early stages, he notes in a follow-up email, and it could be a decade before the technology is ready to be applied in agricultural crops.

Scientists from the Centre for Integrative Biological Signalling Studies Cluster of Excellence at the University of Freiburg in Germany were also part of the research team.

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