How specialized plant “train tracks” can be used to feed the expanding population

A new study will examine the possibility that specialized plant “train tracks” that transport chemicals within cells could help in feeding the world’s expanding population.

Food Security

Image Credit: Leonid Sorokin/

Global food and energy security depend on plants, yet owing to climate change and population expansion, humanity is facing an alarming problem.

By 2050, 60% more food must be produced to meet these demands, during a time when both cold and warm temperature shocks are happening more frequently. To address this problem, new information on how to use plant growth and resilience to stress is needed.

Actin is a natural molecule found in plant cells, and now a researcher at the University of Warwick has received funding to study it. Within plant cells, actin networks function as “train tracks” that transport other components. Faster-moving actin is known to develop bigger plants with more biomass.

However, scientists are unsure of the precise process by which this happens or the interactions that cause this movement within cells.

In his three-year study, Research Fellow Joe McKenna of the University of Warwick’s School of Life Sciences hopes to address this issue.

At a cellular level, plants display some of the fastest movements known in biology. Organelles show rapid and coordinated movements within plant cells. This movement is critical for normal growth and development as well as responses to environmental conditions—changing shape and moving during hot or cold temperatures.

Joe McKenna, Research Fellow, School of Life Sciences, University of Warwick

He added, “While we do not know the exact mechanism of how this movement occurs, we know it is driven by the actin ‘cytoskeleton’—a skeletal-like network supporting the cell—and myosin motor proteins (which act like trains traveling along the actin tracks). When the actin cytokskeleton is disrupted, movement within the cell stops.

I will uncover how the Endoplasmic Reticulum (ER) and nucleus interact with the actin cytoskeleton. The ER is responsible for making most of the plant biomass we eat and is known to rapidly remodel during normal development and environmental stress. The nucleus is highly mobile and its interaction with the actin cytoskeleton promotes plant growth via DNA replication,” he further stated.

McKenna concluded, “If we can understand how actin interacts with these organelles and the proteins involved, we can engineer these systems to improve plant growth and develop plants which are much bigger and resistant to temperature stresses. It is known that changing the rate of organelle dynamics has a direct effect on plant growth. Faster movement results in larger plants.

Dr McKenna, who received a Discovery Fellowship from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBRSC) to fund £535,000 to support his study, will utilize specialized imaging with fluorescent reporters and a method known as proximity labeling to identify specific proteins. His research suggests a sustainable method of improving agriculture.


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