Glowing Roots

Researchers at the Carnegie Institution for Science have managed to transfer a gene encoding a luciferase protein from a firefly into plants so that the plant, including its roots, glow. More amazingly, the genes can be placed into the genome so that a different colour light is produced depending on which gene was involved in deciding, for example, which way the roots should grow when meeting an obstacle or some environmental stressor (eg lack of water).

The plant is grown in a thin layer of soil squashed between pieces of transparent plastic. When imaged with light sensitive cameras, the glow of the roots can be seen.

This technology, say the researchers in the article published in Inside Science, could be used to detect different microbial or chemical inputs and their effect on root development, and was initially used to see the effect of simulated droughts on root development and how the root system responds. An independent plant geneticist noted that the technology may work well with thin roots but may have trouble working in larger/thicker root. This concern was raised in the context of the usefulness of the technology in research involving some agricultural crops such as corn and rice.

The idea and its potential usefulness in research is significant if it can be used in a wide range of food crops. Imagine if, for example, we could take a staple crop which has a shallow root structure and compare it with another crop or plant known to be drought tolerant. The gene giving drought tolerance and a description of what it does could be identified and differences with the shallow rooted crop noted. This type of research could open way for identification of rarely expressed genes or the possibility of a transgenic modification that could secure the production of a drought affected crops in a warming world or possibly allow such crops to be grown in regions where it wasn’t possible before.

Cover image credit: Rubén Réllan-Álvarez

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