Dealing with disaster - when rooted to the spot

When nature turns nasty plants can’t run for cover, they have had to evolve to survive what the environment throws at them. Whether that’s drought, flooding, saline soils or extreme temperatures, scientists, led by a team at the University of Nottingham , have now discovered that flowering plants have adopted a single biochemical mechanism to sense multiple environmental stresses, that enhances survival.

Abiotic stress - stress inflicted by the physical environment surrounding the plant- can have a profound effect on yields and the quality of crops. This latest discovery could provide plant breeders with new genetic material that may allow tolerance to multiple abiotic stresses at the same time.

Their research - ‘The Cys-Arg/N-end rule pathway is a general sensor of abiotic stress in flowering plants’ - will be published on 12 October 2017, in the journal Current Biology.

For the last eight years the team led by Professor Michael Holdsworth in the School of Biosciences at the University of Nottingham, and involving first authors Dr Jorge Vicente and Dr Guillermina Mendiondo , has been working at the molecular level of plant behaviour to identify an initial biochemical mechanism sensing abiotic stresses and work out what it does.

They have shown that the mechanism they originally identified as providing protection against flooding also provides protection against a host of other stress conditions such as drought, salinity and heat shock.

A string of publications back up their latest discovery

Initially Professor Holdsworth and his team identified the biochemical mechanism used by plants to sense oxygen , published in and showed that it is used by plants to tolerate flooding , published in Plant Biotechnology Journal in 2016. They showed that the same mechanism is used by plants to ‘see’ the gas nitric oxide , an important signalling molecule, published in the journal Molecular Cell in 2014. This was the first time that a central mechanism for the detection of NO in plants had been identified.

Professor Holdsworth said: “We have now been able to build on these discoveries to the point of showing that this same mechanism controls plant tolerance to lots of stresses. In this current paper we suggest why plants use the mechanism to sense nitric oxide, that is in order to perceive abiotic stresses other than flooding, such as drought, salinity and heat stress.”

The mechanism, the ‘N-end rule pathway’, controls the destruction of key proteins, called transcription factors, which act as ‘master sensors’ to control nitric oxide and oxygen responses throughout the plant life cycle. When levels of oxygen or nitric oxide decline, for example during either flooding or other abiotic stresses, these proteins build up inside the plant cells, switching on protection mechanisms that allow the plants to withstand the stresses and carry on growing.

The team now have funding to work on the biotic environment - the interaction of plants with other organisms, particularly plant pathogens.
The work was carried out in collaboration with researchers at the University of Sheffield, CSIC-Universidad Politecnica in Valencia, Spain, and the Agricultural Biotechnology Research Center, Academia Sinica, Taiwan. It was funded by the BBSRC, EU, Spanish and Taiwanese government funding agencies, and by SABMiller plc.

After the article publishes, it will be available at:­t-biology/­fulltext/S­0960-9822(­17)31170-3 .


Seedlings contain an enzyme that reports the presence of oxygen and nitric oxide ‘sensor’ proteins, by turning plant tissue blue when they appear in plant cells. The image shows that when seedlings are grown in the presence of high levels of salt (NaCl) sensor proteins accumulate, that helps the seedling to grow and survive the high salt levels. Images are available via this link. Please credit: The University of Nottingham and Current Biology.