Petunias spread their scent using pushy proteins

Molecules that move fragrance compounds out of cells may protect plants


SWEET SCENT  A protein called PhABCG1 moves scent compounds out of petunias’ cells, helping the flowers to smell sweet.

Yves6/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

When it comes to smelling pretty, petunias are pretty pushy.

Instead of just letting scent compounds waft into the air, the plants use a particular molecule called a transporter protein to help move the compounds along, a new study found. The results, published June 30 in Science, could help researchers genetically engineer many kinds of plants both to attract pollinators and to repel pests and plant eaters.

“These researchers have been pursuing this transporter protein for a while,” says David Clark, an expert in horticultural biotechnology and genetics at the University of Florida in Gainesville. “Now they’ve got it. And the implications could be big.”

Plants use scents to communicate (SN: 7/27/02, p. 56). The scent compounds can attract insects and other organisms that spread pollen and help plants reproduce, or can repel pests and plant-eating animals. The proteins found in the new study could be used to dial the amount of scent up or down so that plants can attract more pollinators or better protect themselves. Currently unscented plants could be engineered to smell, too, giving them a better shot at reproduction and survival, Clark says.

Plants get their scents from volatile organic compounds, which easily turn into gases at ambient temperatures. Petunias get their sweet smell from a mix of benzaldehyde, the same compound that gives cherries and almonds their fruity, nutty scent, and phenylpropanoids, often used in perfumes.

But nice smells have a trade-off: If these volatile compounds build up inside a plant, they can damage the plant’s cells.

About two years ago, study coauthor Joshua Widhalm, a horticulturist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., and colleagues used computer simulations to look at the way petunias’ scent compounds moved. The results showed that the compounds can’t move out of cells fast enough on their own to avoid damaging the plant. So the researchers hypothesized that something must be shuttling the compounds out.

In the new study, led by Purdue biochemist Natalia Dudareva, the team looked for genetic changes as the plant developed from its budding stage, which had the lowest levels of volatile organic compounds, to its flower-opening stage, with the highest levels. As flowers opened and scent levels peaked, the gene PhABCG1 went into overdrive; levels of the protein that it makes jumped to more than 100 times higher than during the budding stage, the researchers report.

The team then genetically engineered petunias to produce 70 to 80 percent less of the PhABCG1 protein. Compared with regular petunias, the engineered ones released around half as much of the scent compounds, with levels inside the plant’s cells building to double or more the normal levels. Images of the cells show that the accumulation led to deterioration of cell membranes.

A lot of work has been done to identify the genes and proteins that generate scent compounds, says Clark. But this appears to be the first study to have identified a transporter protein to shuttle those compounds out of the cell. “That’s a big deal,” he says.

Ashley Yeager is the associate news editor at Science News. She has worked at The Scientist, the Simons Foundation, Duke University and the W.M. Keck Observatory, and was the web producer for Science News from 2013 to 2015. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and a master’s degree in science writing from MIT.

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