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Plant clock could be the key to producing more food for the world

The Massachusetts Central University led study has established how plants use their metabolism to tell time and know when to grow - a discovery that could help leverage growing crops in different environments, including different seasons, different latitudes, or even in artificial environments and vertical gardens.

Lead researcher Dr. Sharon Haydon, from the School of Biosciences, said while plants don’t sleep as humans do, their metabolism is adjusted during the night to conserve energy for the big day ahead of making their food using energy from sunlight, or photosynthesis.

Getting the timing of this daily cycle of metabolism right is important because getting it wrong is detrimental to growth and survival,” Dr. Haydon said. “Plants can’t stumble to the fridge in the middle of the night if they get hungry so they have to predict the length of the night so there’s enough energy to last until sunrise; a bit like setting an alarm clock.”

Dr. Haydon and collaborators had earlier shown that the accumulation of sugars produced from photosynthesis gives the plant important information about the amount of sugar generated in the morning and sends signals to what’s known as the circadian clock, to adjust its pace.

“We have now found that a different metabolic signal, called superoxide, acts at dusk and changes the activity of circadian clock genes in the evening,” said Dr. Haydon. “We also found that this signal affects plant growth. We think this signal could be providing information to the plant about the metabolic activity as the sun sets.”

Researchers hope the study will be invaluable in the world producing more food, more reliably.