Programmed cell death in plants can help tackle increased food needs


Programmed cell death (PCD) plays a key role in plant health, with the resulting socioeconomic impact. PCD research is a relatively new field and will bring more pest-resistant plants and, in the long term, higher-quality, longer-lasting fruit.

"We have to increase efforts in basic research to transform it into practical applications as soon as possible,” said Nuria Sánchez Coll and Marc Valls, researchers at the Center for Research in Agricultural Genomics (CRAG) and scientific leaders of the B·Debate scientific debates The death of plant cells: From proteases to field applications held in Barcelona from 2 to 4 October. More than 50 international experts participated in this event to debate the current state of research in this field and its future perspectives and impact on industry and agriculture.

According to predictions from the United Nations, the human population will have increased 13% in the next 15 years and, as a result, so will our food needs. In order to provide for the world population, we must find new ways to protect the most important food species from disease and maximize their yield.

Crop productivity can be drastically affected by pests. Having crops that not only grow better in healthy conditions, but are also able to fight fungal and bacterial pathogens has become a priority. PCD is key in this fight, as plants defend themselves against a bacterial or fungal attack by initiating a program of cell death in cells near the focus of the infection, thus eliminating the organisms and preventing them from spreading throughout the plant. Understanding these mechanisms on a molecular level is key to effectively fighting pests.

Weeds can also decrease crop productivity in plants used for food. Some pharmaceutical companies are currently researching PCD to obtain specific herbicides. Their research consists in finding and studying the proteins involved in PCD in weeds in order to make herbicides that directly attack these molecules and thus eliminate, in a programmed manner, these plants. The pesticide-production industry is interested in basic research precisely to learn about these pathways.

Obtaining higher-quality, longer-lasting fruit

We know that the process through which fruit separates from the plant once ripe is controlled by PCD. As long as the fruit is attached to the plant, it receives nutrients from the plant that make it sweeter and of higher quality. According to Dr. Sánchez Coll, “knowing the mechanisms of PCD and being able to activate or inhibit them as we please will allow us to control fruit-ripening times.” More accurate knowledge of the process of programmed cell death can, thus, lead to higher-yield crops.

New technology to avoid transgenic crops

In order to achieve the aforementioned improvements, plants must be genetically modified. We must differentiate between genetically modified organisms (GMO) and transgenic ones. All transgenic organisms have been genetically modified but not all GMOs are transgenic. The difference lies in the fact that the latter include a foreign DNA fragment. According to Dr. Sánchez Coll “research into PCD was halted because transgenic plants are banned in Europe.” It is done through mutation of one of the plant’s genes, not by introducing foreign genetic material. This technique is similar in terms of invasiveness to traditional crossbreeding of agricultural varieties to obtain more resistant plants.

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