UK research discovers protein that could cut fertiliser use

Researchers at the University of Nottingham have discovered a protein in plant roots which optimises nutrient uptake and could be engineered to make crops tolerant to drought and less reliant on artificial fertilisers.

The team of scientists identified new dirigent (“directing”) proteins in the endodermis of plant roots that regulate the uptake of nutrients and water from the soil.

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Dr Gabriel Castrillo, a researcher at the University of Nottingham’s School of Biosciences, explains that the discovery shows how plant roots regulate their uptake of water and nutrients through the deposition of lignin, which is regulated by dirigent proteins.

“Without these proteins, proper root sealing is not completed and the nutrient balance in the plant is compromised,” Gabriel says.

“We can use this knowledge to engineer plants to be able to grow with less water and chemical fertilisers.”

Correct balance of soil nutrients

Plant roots function by absorbing mineral nutrients and water from the soil via a specialised layer of tissue known as the endodermis.

An impermeable barrier composed of lignin blocks the uncontrolled movement of material into the root by forming a tight seal between cells and ensures the endodermis is the only root entry for nutrients and water.

Dirigent proteins were found to work with other root regulatory components to deposit lignin in the endodermis, allowing the plant to ensure it receives the correct balance of soil nutrients.

Gabriel says: “It is ever more important to understand the mechanisms of plants, so we can future-proof them to secure future food supplies.”

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