Issue Date: October 13, 2008
Modified Plant Beats Aluminum Toxicity
Biochemists have found a genetic loophole that could permit engineered plants to thrive in soils laden with a toxic form of aluminum (Curr. Biol., DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2008.08.050). Acidic soils that cover roughly half of Earth's arable land oxidize naturally occurring aluminum to Al3+, which damages plant DNA and stunts root growth—a significant problem limiting food production in some regions. Megan A. Rounds and Paul B. Larsen of the University of California, Riverside, discovered that a single amino acid switch—alanine for glycine—in a gene coding for the growth factor protein AtATR in an Arabidopsis plant results in a dramatic increase in aluminum tolerance. AtATR monitors the integrity of DNA and serves as a checkpoint for cell division in root tips. The mutation disrupts AtATR's assessment activity and allows cells to continue dividing even in the presence of aluminum and accumulating DNA damage. This finding was unexpected, Larsen says, because scientists had believed a single genetic modification might only lead to an incremental increase in aluminum tolerance.
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