£4.8m study to show how plants stay alive at night

SCOTTISH scientists are investigating how plants instinctively conserve enough energy to stay alive during the night, as part of a study aimed at boosting crop production.

During daylight hours, plants build up starch from the sun that they store in their leaves. When darkness falls, they use this starch as an energy resource to stay alive.

Scientists know plants have internal clocks that allow them to anticipate when it will become light and dark. But mystery still surrounds the ability of plants to know how much starch they have in storage and how long it needs to last to keep them alive before the sun comes up.

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Academics from Aberdeen University are now trying to unravel the ancient mystery as part of a five-year, 4.8 million study with six international partner institutions, which is being funded by the European Union.

Dr Oliver Ebenhoeh, from the university's Institute of Complex Systems and Mathematical Biology, said: "It has been known for centuries that plants have an internal clock which allows them to know instinctively when night time will fall. What we don't yet understand is the link between this clock and a plant's metabolism.

"The study will use a common weed found across the northern hemisphere called the thale cress. This plant is used by botanists worldwide as it is particularly useful in genetic studies.

"Our aim is to develop a mathematical model to explain this precise and flexible regulation of energy storage and consumption and to understand the 'signals' which are being transmitted between the plant's clock and its metabolism.

"Understanding how plants use their energy would potentially allow us to manipulate crop growth so that they are grown more efficiently."

The study involves researchers at two other Scottish institutions - Edinburgh University and the Invergowrie-based Scottish Crop Research Institute.