MicroRNA: mechanism that allows plants to be larger and healthier

A group of researchers from IBR are studying how these small molecules could improve plant characteristics. The aim of this research, led by Javier Palatnik, an independent researcher of CONICET at the Institute of Molecular and Cellular Biology of Rosario (CONICET – UNR) is to increase the performance of the field and produce bigger plants with a greater tolerance to drought.

To this aim, they studied the functioning of small RNAs that are fragments of genetic that are involved in the steps of protein synthesis and determine which genes are expressed in the cell and which ones are not. Making a plant that has a larger biomass, which means to say, has a large amount of cells, translates to better plant performance in the field, says the researcher.

Furthermore, he explains that “understanding how these microRNAs originate and act is vital to have a comprehensive understanding of how the growth and development of plants is regulated and also how they adjust to the environment. It is assumed that if a plant is bigger and healthier it will produce more seeds. This is not always the case but it is the path that takes us closer to getting there.”
“The function that these microRNAs have is essential for life to exist, at least in multicellular organisms”, says Palatnik and states that the research focuses on studying how these molecules control cell division, because if it is possible to manipulate this process the result is larger plants that produce more seeds or plants that are more drought resistant.

MicroRNAs also regulate other biological processes, such as the time of flowering, the size and shape of the leaves as well as responses to nutrient deficiencies.

The research on the discovery of microRNA in plants was published in the journal Genome Research and the data provided enable researchers to make a bridge from basic science to applied science.
“Generating plants with these features can have other potential applications such as biofuels. If a larger amount of plant mass is used, then the performance is higher”, said Palatnik.

The species used for this research is Arabidopsis thaliana, which is a small herbaceous plant with an annual cycle. Thaliana is a tribute to Johannes Thal who, in the sixteenth century, made its botanical description. It has no commercial interest. Still, in recent years, it has attracted the attention and interest of the scientific community. Thousands of researchers every day are working with it. In 2000 the genome sequence was finally obtained, making it the first plant genome to be sequenced.

Although in its natural environment Arabidopsis is a grass, like many others, it has been placed ahead of other plant models used in the laboratory, such as tomatoes or corn. Arabidopsis thaliana grows quickly and facilitates the work of researchers in the laboratory.
“Now, the next step is to evaluate what we saw on a laboratory scale, transferring to other plants of agronomic interest. And we have confidence that this is going to be demonstrated”, the researcher concludes.

Abstract of the publication