Understanding How Plants Protect Themselves
We need plants to enable and sustain life on Earth. As well as absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen, plants pump energy through the food chain and produce vital ingredients for medicines. But human activity is causing stress to plants across the world’s ecosystems on an unparalleled scale. Dr. Isabel Molina, Canada Research Chair in Plant Lipid Metabolism is trying to understand how plants adapt to protect themselves from stresses such as pathogens, salinity and drought.
Two adaptive materials known as cutin and suberin are found in higher plants (plants with well-developed vascular systems for transporting nutrients). These biopolymers are produced by linking fatty acids into strong polymers and depositing them on the plants’ cell walls. These extracellular lipids protect plants from water loss and pathogens. Understanding their biogenesis could help researchers develop stress-tolerant plants or improve seed viability and germination. Molina and her research team are investigating the enzymes responsible for making and assembling the fatty acids and waxes that plants use to build their lipid barriers.
Helping plants—especially crops—to better withstand drought and high temperatures is increasingly important in an era of unprecedented climate change. Deeper insights into plant surface lipids could also lead to the development of novel crop varieties capable of producing larger amounts of waxes, biopolymers or their building blocks, which could potentially be used as renewable energy sources or chemical feedstock.