Scientists Pinpoint How Plants Are Able to Sense Electrical Signals

July 11, 2016 | Erica Tennenhouse

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The cells of animals exchange billions of messages with each other each day through electrical signals — changes in the balance of negative and positive charge inside and outside of a cell that propagates along the cell membrane.

Plant cells also send out electric signals to tell cells in other parts of the plant about an injury or to warn them of a potential threat. But exactly how plant cells are able to receive these signals has been a lingering question in plant biology.

"We have been asking ourselves for many years what molecular components plants use to exchange information among each other and how they sense the changes in electric voltage," Rainer Hedrich, a professor at the University of Würzburg, Germany, and lead author of a new study published in the journal Plant Biology, said in a press release.

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Back in the mid 1980s, Hedrich was part of a team that made the first discovery of an ion channel protein in plant cells, called TCP1, that is activated by electrical signals. Now, Hedrich’s team of researchers has identified the precise part of the channel that functions as a sensor of electric voltage.

The researchers created a three-dimensional model of the channel protein to pinpoint the areas that could potentially function as voltage sensors. "Our model clearly showed that the TCP1 channel is made up of two interconnected, nearly identical protein units each capable of forming a potential voltage sensor," explains co-author Thomas Müller.

However, by comparing the protein across living organisms, they noticed that one of those two subunits had barely changed over millions of years. The fact that this subunit was nearly identical in protozoa, plants, and humans, indicates that it has been conserved over evolutionary time, likely because it serves an important function.

Once the researchers narrowed their search for the voltage sensor down to this second subunit, they switched to an experimental approach. When a particular region of the subunit was mutated, the plants lost their ability to respond to the electric field, providing strong evidence that the mutated region was the voltage sensor.

According to the researchers' findings, mutations in the TCP1 channel cause the plant to appear injured and alter its perception of and defense against pathogens.

Interestingly, the Ebola virus targets the human version of the TPC1 channel to gain access to the cells. Hedrich hopes that further research into the workings of this channel will provide new insight into the infection path of Ebola.

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