Salk scientists untangle steroid hormone signaling in plants

LA JOLLA – When given extra shots of the plant steroid brassinolide, plants "pump up" like major league baseball players do on steroids. Tracing brassinolide's signal deep into the cell's nucleus, researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies have unraveled how the growth-boosting hormone accomplishes its job at the molecular level.

The Salk researchers, led by Joanne Chory, a professor in the Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology Laboratory and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, published their findings in this week's journal Nature.

"The steroid hormone brassinolide is central to plants' growth. Without it, plants remain extreme dwarfs. If we are going to understand how plants grow, we need to understand the response pathway to this hormone," says Chory. "This study clarifies what's going on downstream in the nucleus when brassinolide signals a plant cell to grow."

Brassinolide, a member of a family of plant hormones known as brassinosteroids, is a key element of plants' response to light, enabling them to adjust growth to reach light or strengthen stems. Exploiting its potent growth-promoting properties could increase crop yields or enable growers to make plants more resistant to drought, pathogens, and cold weather.

Unfortunately, synthesizing brassinosteroids in the lab is complicated and expensive. But understanding how plant steroids work at the molecular level may one day lead to cheap and simple ways to bulk up crop harvests.

Likewise, since low brassinolide levels are associated with dwarfism, manipulating hormone levels during dormant seasons may allow growers to control the height of grasses, trees or other plants, thereby eliminating the need to constantly manicure gardens.

Based on earlier studies, the Salk researchers had developed a model that explained what happens inside a plant cell when brassinolide signals a plant cell to start growing.

But a model is just a model. Often evidence in favor of a particular model is indirect and could support multiple models. Describing the components of the signaling cascade that relays brassinolide's message into a cell's nucleus, postdoctoral researcher and lead author of the study Grégory Vert, now at the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS) in Montpellier, France, said, "All the players are old acquaintances and we knew from genetic studies that they were involved in this pathway. But when we revisited the old crew it became clear that we had to revise the original model."

When brassinosteroids bind a receptor on the cell's surface, an intracellular enzyme called BIN2 is inactivated by an unknown mechanism. Previously, investigators thought that inactivation of BIN2, which is a kinase, freed a second protein known as BES1 from entrapment in the cytoplasm, the watery compartment surrounding a cell's nucleus, and allowed it to migrate or "shuttle" into the nucleus where it tweaked the activity of genes regulating plant growth.

A closer inspection, however, revealed that BIN2 resides in multiple compartments of a cell, including the nucleus, and it is there--not in the cytoplasm--that BIN2 meets up with BES1 and prevents it from activating growth genes. "All of a sudden the 'BES1 shuttle model' no longer made sense," says Vert, adding that it took many carefully designed experiments to convince himself and others that it was time to retire the old model.

A new picture of how brassinosteroids stimulate plant growth now emerges based on those experiments: steroid hormones are still thought to inactivate BIN2 and reciprocally activate BES1, but instead of freeing BES1 to shuttle into the nucleus, it is now clear that the crucial activation step occurs in the nucleus where BES1 is already poised for action. Once released from BIN2 inhibition, BES1 associates with itself and other regulatory factors, and this modified form of BES1 binds to DNA, activating scores of target genes.

Referring to the work of Vert and other members of the brassinosteroid team, Chory says, "The old model may be out, but Greg's new studies, together with those of former postdocs, Yanhai Yin and Zhiyong Wang, have allowed us to unravel the nuclear events controlling brassinosteroid responses at the genomic level. This turns our attention to the last mystery: the gap in our understanding of the events between steroid binding at the cell surface and these nuclear mechanisms."

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The Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, is an independent nonprofit organization dedicated to fundamental discoveries in the life sciences, the improvement of human health and the training of future generations of researchers. Jonas Salk, M.D., whose polio vaccine all but eradicated the crippling disease poliomyelitis in 1955, opened the Institute in 1965 with a gift of land from the City of San Diego and the financial support of the March of Dimes.


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