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Q&A: What are strigolactones and why are they important to plants and soil microbes?
© Smith; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2014
Received: 23 January 2014
Published: 31 March 2014
What are strigolactones? Strigolactones are signaling compounds made by plants. They have two main functions: first, as endogenous hormones to control plant development, and second as components of root exudates to promote symbiotic interactions between plants and soil microbes. Some plants that are parasitic on other plants have established a third function, which is to stimulate germination of their seeds when in close proximity to the roots of a suitable host plant. It is this third function that led to the original discovery and naming of strigolactones.
What are strigolactones?
Strigolactones are signaling compounds made by plants. They have two main functions: first, as endogenous hormones to control plant development, and second as components of root exudates to promote symbiotic interactions between plants and soil microbes. Some plants that are parasitic on other plants have established a third function, which is to stimulate germination of their seeds when in close proximity to the roots of a suitable host plant. It is this third function that led to the original discovery and naming of strigolactones.
Where does the name come from?
Why do plants secrete strigolactones if they stimulate attack by parasitic weeds?
Plants in the broomrape family have exploited the fact that other plants exude strigolactones to use them as signals to trigger germination of their seeds. Since strigolactones will only be present in close proximity to plant roots, the seeds that germinate will immediately attach to the roots to start the colonization process. Thus, these parasitic weeds are opportunistic, and in evolutionary terms are ‘newcomers on the block’ relative to the symbiotic soil fungi.
Do strigolactones have any effect on the plant that makes them?
The result of such effects of strigolactones is that the root system grows in preference to the shoot system. Why? The answer is that it helps the plant to scavenge for mineral nutrients in the soil, while at the same time conserving the resources of the plant. The advantage of this becomes clear when we realize that strigolactone production is increased in response to nutrient limitation in the soil. So when soil nutrients are scarce the plant invests resources into finding more, instead of using limited resources to grow the shoot. Remember too that strigolactone production in the roots will encourage the formation of arbuscular mycorrhizae - another strategy to acquire minerals from the soil. Conversely, when mineral nutrients are plentiful, strigolactone production will decline, less will be transported to the shoot and new secondary shoots will grow to increase the capacity of the plant to capture energy from the sun and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Strigolactones have several functions - which came first?
Strigolactones can be traced back to some simple single-celled algae and primitive land plants such as mosses and liverworts . Their original function was presumably in signaling between cells and in the control of growth and differentiation in early plants. For example, strigolactones are found in mosses, liverworts and in the alga Chara coralline, where they promote rhizoid growth. The filamentous moss Physcomitrella patens produces strigolactones that can regulate protonema branching and growth of filaments of a neighboring colony . Thus, we see how growth and competition of neighbors can be coordinated by strigolactones - a principle that operates within higher plants to coordinate root and shoot growth. With colonization of the land several hundred million years ago, came fungal symbioses. Some liverworts enter into symbiotic relationships with mycorrhizal fungi, and although we do not yet know if this interaction depends on strigolactones, it is a hypothesis worthy of testing. With the evolution of vascular plants came complex patterns of shoot branching and the opportunity for long distance transport of strigolactones. It is in the flowering plants that the important functions of strigolactones are best known and best understood. The exploitation by witchweeds of strigolactones exuded by host plants is the latest invention in the evolutionary history of strigolactones.
How are strigolactones made by plants?
How are strigolactones detected by plant cells?
Plant hormones are invariably detected by a receptor protein, which triggers interaction of that protein with other proteins to elicit a signal transduction cascade leading to changes in cell activity. The strigolactone receptor was identified through studies of mutants that are insensitive to strigolactone treatment, including the rice dwarf 14 (d14) and petunia deceased apical dominance 2 (dad2) mutants. Isolation of the D14 and DAD2 genes showed that they encode members of the α/β-barrel family of proteins with strong similarity to esterases [13, 14]. The proteins are able to hydrolyse the D-ring of GR24, but very slowly. Crystal structure analysis of these proteins has revealed the products of D-ring hydrolysis in the active site of the protein, and small conformational changes compared to the protein in the absence of strigolactone [15, 16]. Mutation of a key serine residue in the active site of the esterase renders the protein inactive. It is believed that conformational changes in the D14-type protein can mediate its interaction with other proteins in the cell to elicit strigolactone responses.
How is the strigolactone signal transduced into a response?
Strigolactone hydrolysis by D14-type proteins promotes their interaction with an F-box protein named D3 in rice, or MAX2 in Petunia and Arabidopsis. This in turn targets other proteins for tagging with ubiquitin, which marks the protein for destruction. Arguably the most critical one is D53, discovered in rice [17, 18]. This protein is necessary for the outgrowth of lateral shoots or tillers, most likely through the regulation of gene transcription, but in the presence of strigolactone it is tagged with ubiquitin by the D14-D3 complex, and destroyed . Thus, strigolactones maintain a brake on the growth of new lateral shoots. We can speculate that such a mechanism acting on proteins similar to D53 might regulate the growth of lateral roots, but this remains to be determined. A recent separate study has provided evidence that the Arabidopsis MAX2 protein targets the transcriptional regulator BES1, a positive regulator of signaling by the brassinosteroid plant growth hormone, for degradation. This degradation of BES1 is promoted by D14 and strigolactones . However, not all responses to strigolactones are mediated through changes in gene expression. Strigolactone has been found to trigger depletion of the auxin transporter PIN1 from the plasma membrane of xylem parenchyma cells in the stem within 10 minutes of treatment, before any changes in gene expression . Thus, there are probably several mechanisms by which strigolactones regulate cell function and hence plant development.
How are strigolactone signals integrated with other signals to control growth?
Going back to symbiotic fungi, how do they detect strigolactones?
We know that cells of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi can detect strigolactones because they respond to them, but we have no idea how they detect them. There is no reason to suppose that the mechanism is the same as that in plants. Indeed, the D14-type proteins that recognize strigolactones in plants are not found in fungi, yet similar proteins can be found in Bacillus. Treatment of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi with GR24 induces changes in mitochondrial function, but we do not know if this is a direct or indirect effect of the GR24 treatment . This is an area of importance for future research, since the management of plant-fungal symbioses is so important to ecosystem wellbeing.
Why are strigolactones so important in agriculture?
The Green Revolution gave us high-yielding dwarf cereals that are highly productive in intensive agriculture systems employing fertilizers and pesticides. Such dwarf varieties have reduced production of or sensitivity to gibberellins so that the plant invests less energy in stem growth and more in seed production. World supplies of phosphate are finite and nitrogen fertilizers are made in large amounts from fossil fuels, so in the future we will need new crop varieties that use nutrients more efficiently. We may also need to rely more on symbiotic relationships between plants and soil microbes to promote plant growth. Genetic variation in strigolactone responses could provide an opportunity to breed plants with superior nutrient use efficiency and ability to form symbiotic associations. In particular, strigolactone control of root and shoot architecture could be exploited to breed better plants . At the same time we can look for opportunities to minimize parasitism by witchweeds, particularly in Africa where they cause severe losses to subsistence farmers. This might be achieved by plant breeding, or by designing superior strigolactone analogs that can be used to stimulate suicidal germination of witchweed seeds in the soil, before the crop is planted. Strigolactone research, therefore, has a very important future to help address some key challenges in crop breeding and management.
I thank Adrian Scaffidi for help with figures and Mark Waters for valuable discussions.
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