The Drought Alert System of Terrestrial Plants has an Underwater Origin

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For plants, the transition from water to land was a monumental achievement that changed our world forever. Such a transition was fraught with unique challenges, not the least of which being the ever present threat of desiccation. A new study now suggests that those early land plants already had the the tools to deal with drought and they have their aquatic algal ancestors to thank.

One of the keys to being able to survive drought is being able to detect it in the first place. Without some sort of signalling pathway, plants would not be able to close up stomata and channel vital water and nutrients to more important tissues and organs. As such, elucidating the origins and function of drought signalling pathways in plants has been of great interest to science.

One key set of pathways involved in plant drought response is collectively referred to as the “chloroplast retrograde signaling network.” I’m not even going to pretend that I understand how these pathways operate in any detail but there is one aspect of this network that is the key to this recent discovery. It involves the means by which drought and high-light conditions are sensed in one part of the plant and how that information is then communicated to the rest of the plant. When this signalling pathway is activated, the plant can then begin to produce enzymes that go on to activate defense strategies such as stomatal closure.

Chara braunii  - a modern day example of a streptophyte alga

Chara braunii - a modern day example of a streptophyte alga

The surprise came when researchers at the Australian National University, in collaboration with researchers at the University of Florida, decided to study the chloroplast retrograde signaling network in more detail. They were interested in the inner workings of this process in relation to stomata. Stomata are tiny pores on the leaves and stems of terrestrial plants that regulate the exchange of gases like CO2 and oxygen as well as water vapor. To add some controls to their experiment, the team added a few species of aquatic algae into the mix. Algae do not produce stomata and therefore they reasoned that no traces of chloroplast retrograde signaling network enzymes should be present.

This is not what happened. Instead, the team discovered that the enzymes in question also showed up in a group of algae known as the streptophytes. This was exciting because streptophyte algae hail from the lineage thought to be ancestral to all land plants. It appears that the tools necessary for terrestrial plants to survive drought were already in place before their ancestors ever left the water.

Why this is the case could have something to do with the streptophyte lifestyle. Today, these algae are known to tolerate very tough conditions. Though outright drought is rarely a threat for these aquatic algae, they nonetheless have to deal with scenarios that resemble drought such as high salinity. Streptophyte algae found growing in ephemeral pools must cope with ever increasing concentrations of salinity as the water around them evaporates. It is possible that this drought signalling pathway may have evolved as a response to hyper-saline conditions such as these. Regardless of what was going on during those early days of plant evolution, this research indicates that the ability for terrestrial plants to deal with drought evolved before their ancestors ever left the water.

The closer we look, the more we can appreciate that evolution of important traits isn’t always de novo. More often it appears that new innovations result from a retooling of of older genetic equipment. In the case of land plants, a signalling pathway that allowed their aquatic ancestors to deal with water loss was coopted later on by organs such as leaves and stems to deal with the stresses of life on land. As the old saying goes, “life uhhh… finds a way.”

Photo Credits: [1] [2]

Further Reading: [1] [2]

Early Land Plants Made The World Muddy

Cooksonia  is one of the earliest land plants to have evolved.

Cooksonia is one of the earliest land plants to have evolved.

Try to picture the world before life moved onto land. It would have been a vastly different landscape than anything we know today. For one, there would have been no soil. Before life moved onto land, there was nothing organic around to facilitate soil formation. This would have changed as terrestrial habitats were slowly colonized by microbes and eventually plants. A recent paper published in Science is one of the first to demonstrate that the rise in certain sediments on land, specifically mud-forming clays, coincided with the rise in deep-rooted land plants.

This was no small task. The research duo had to look at thousands of reports spanning from the Archean eon, some 3.5 billion years ago, to the Carboniferous period, some 358 million years ago. By looking for the relative amounts of a sedimentary rock called mudrock in terrestrial habitats, they were able to see how the geology of terrestrial habitats was changing through time. What they found was that the presence of mudrock increased by orders of magnitude around the same time as early land plants were beginning to colonize land. Before plants made it onto land, mudrocks comprised a mere 1% of terrestrial sediments. By the end of the Carboniferous period, mudrocks had risen to 26%.

This begs the question, why are mudrocks so significant? What do they tell us about what was going on in terrestrial environments? A key to these questions lies in the composition of mudrocks themselves. Mudrock is made up of fine grained sediments like clay. There are many mechanisms by which clay can be produced and certainly this was going on well before plants made it onto the scene. The difference here is in the quantity of clay-like minerals in these sediments. Whereas bacteria and fungi do facilitate the formation of clay minerals, they do so in small quantities.

A little bit of moss goes a long way for erosion control!

A little bit of moss goes a long way for erosion control!

The real change came when plants began rooting themselves into the soil. In pushing their roots down into sediments, plants act as conduits for increased weathering of said minerals. Roots not only increase the connectivity between subsurface geology and the atmosphere, they also secrete substances like organic acids and form symbiotic relationships with cyanobacteria and fungi that accelerate the weather process. No purely tectonic or chemical processes can explain the rate of weathering that must have taken place to see such an increase in these fine grained minerals.

What's more, the presence of rooted plants on land would have ensured that these newly formed muds would have stuck around on the landscape much longer. Whereas in the absence of plants, these sediments would have been washed away into the oceans, plants were suddenly holding onto them. Plant roots act as binders, holding onto soil particles and preventing erosion. Aside from their roots, the rest of these early land plants would have also held onto sediments via a process known as the baffling effect. As water and wind pick up and move sediments, they inevitably become trapped in and around the stems and leaves of plants. Even tiny colonies of liverworts and moss are capable of doing this and entire mats of these would have contributed greatly to not only the formation of these sediments, but their retention as well.

The movement of plants onto land changed the course of history. It was the beginning of massive changes to come and much of that started with the gradual formation of soils. We owe everything to these early botanical pioneers.

Photo Credit: [1]

Further Reading: [1]