Green monsters? Otherworldly scenes show plants breathing in close-up detail

December 22, 2022

It looks like a scene from a horror movie, but eerie research shows plants breathing in close-up detail. Indeed, a new study provides new insights into the intricate process of plant respiration, with big implications for how to feed the world in the future, reports Good News Network.

Researchers from UC-San Diego, Estonia, and Finland, funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), have found an elusive molecular pathway that plants use to direct their “inhalation” of carbon dioxide.

Knowing how plants sense carbon dioxide to signal their ‘mouths’—stomata—to open and close in response to changing carbon dioxide levels could enable scientists to produce crops robust enough for a changing environment.

“The researchers hope that harnessing this mechanism could lead to future engineering of plant water use efficiency and carbon intake—critical as atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration continues to increase,” said Jared Dashoff, an National Science Foundation spokesperson.

“In fact, the researchers have filed a patent and are examining ways to translate their findings into tools for crop breeders and farmers.”

The process, described in research published in Science Advances, becomes clearer on the microscopic level.

On the underside of leaves and elsewhere, depending on the plant, are tiny openings called stomata—thousands of them per leaf with variations by plant species.

Like little castle gates, pairs of cells on the sides of the stomatal pore known as guard cells, open their central pore to take in the carbon dioxide.

“However, when stomata are open, the inside of the plant is exposed to the elements and water from the plant is lost into the surrounding air, which can dry out the plant,” said Dashoff. “Plants, therefore, must balance the intake of carbon dioxide with water vapor loss by controlling how long the stomata remain open.”

If plants—especially crops like wheat, rice and corn—cannot strike a new balance, they risk drying out, farmers risk losing valuable output, and more people across the world risk going hungry.

As the climate changes, both atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration and temperature increase, affecting the balance between carbon dioxide entry and water vapor loss through the stomata.

“Scientists have long understood stomata and the balance between carbon dioxide intake and water loss. What they haven’t known, until now, is how plants sense carbon dioxide to signal stomata to open and close in response to changing carbon dioxide levels,” said Dashoff.

“Knowing this will now enable researchers to edit those signals—so plants can strike the right balance between taking in carbon dioxide versus losing water—and allow scientists and plant breeders to produce crops robust enough for the environment of the future.”

Research contact: @goodnewsnetwork