UCR researchers discover cellular process enabling photosynthesis

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Despite how essential plants are for life on Earth, little is known about how parts of plant cells orchestrate growth and greening. By creating mutant plants, UC Riverside researchers have uncovered a cellular communication pathway sought by scientists for decades.

Both plants and humans have specialized light-sensitive proteins. In humans these proteins reside in the retina, allowing us to see. In plants, they are called phytochromes and are housed mainly in the nucleus, which serves as master control for the cell’s activities.

The process of photosynthesis, which converts carbon dioxide into sugar and fuels plant growth, begins when light hits the phytochromes in the nucleus. The nucleus then has to send a command to a sub-organ called a plastid to transform itself into a chloroplast, which manufactures the green pigment chlorophyll.

“The nucleus is like the federal government of the cell, while a sub-organ called the plastid functions more like the state,” said UCR’s Meng Chen, an associate professor of cell biology whose lab is one of few in the world focused on phytochrome communications. “Until now, we did not know how the nucleus sent the ‘turn green’ command to the plastids, telling them to activate their photosynthesis genes.”

The way Chen’s team arrived at the answer is detailed in two new papers published today in the journal Nature Communications.

Read more about how they discovered the nucleus-to-plastid communication pathway here: https://news.ucr.edu/articles/2019/06/14/its-not-easy-being-green

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