Sat, Sep 19, 2009 - Page 2 News List

Local discovery of nitrate sensor may contribute to botany, medical research

STAFF WRITER, WITH CNA

A study led by Academia Sinica research fellow Tsay Yi-fang (蔡宜芳) has made a breakthrough that may reduce the need for nitrogen fertilizer to grow plants in poor soil and offers an insight into how key molecules in the human body are detected and kept in balance.

The research group discovered an ion sensor that helps plants detect changes in nitrate concentration in soil.

Since plants use their roots to acquire essential nutrients from soil in inorganic forms, they cannot move freely to hunt for food if the condition of the soil isn't optimal.

Plants therefore need a versatile sensory system to detect and compete for limited soil nutrients. However, researchers did not understand how plants sensed changes in nutrient concentrations, an Academia Sinica statement said yesterday.

The finding by Tsay's team has opened a window to this mystery, with its discovery that plants use a transporter involved in acquiring nitrate from the soil to sense differences in concentration.

It is the first ion sensor identified in higher plants, the statement said, as most sensors identified so far have only been able to detect the presence or absence of a substrate.

This study showed that the nitrate sensor, called CHL1, can detect a wide range of concentration changes and lead to different levels of response in plants, such as flowering and bearing fruit, the statement said.

The discovery was published in the scientific journal Cell yesterday, marking the first time a botany paper written by local scientists has been published in the prestigious journal, the statement said.

Ho Chen-hsun (何承訓) of the National Defense Medical Center's Graduate Institute of Life Sciences, who is the first author of the paper, compared the function of the sensor to a man eating fried chicken seasoned with salt and pepper.

Just as humans can sense how spicy the chicken is, the nitrate sensor helps plants control their nitrate intake, Ho said.

With knowledge of the CHL1, scientists could develop a way to “trick” the sensor into getting plants on poor land to bear fruit, he said.

In the future the sensing mechanism may not only help reduce the need for nitrogen fertilizer, but also serve as a prototype for scientists to understand how nutrient concentration changes are detected in other organisms, the Academia Sinica statement said.

The theory could conceivably be adopted in the medical treatment of diseases, like diabetes, which are caused by defects in sensing substrate concentration changes and maintaining a state of balance within the body.

The finding could help scientists understand how key molecules in the body are detected and kept in balance, it said.

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