Dartmouth Researchers Discover Gene Controlling Iron Uptake In Plants

Nov 29, 2019

Credit NHPR Staff

Dartmouth College scientists have discovered a gene in plants that’s controls how much iron the plant takes in from the soil.

Mary Lou Guerinot, a professor of biological sciences at Dartmouth, was part of the team that discovered the gene. 

“What we’ve been studying is how plants take up iron from the soil with the goal of making food people eat more nutritious,” she said.

The gene Guerinot and other researchers discovered, Upstream Regulator of I-R-T-1, also known as URI, controls when genes should be expressed in the root of the plant to begin iron uptake.

Guerinot says crops like rice, wheat and cassava form the staple diets for half the world’s population.

But those foods don’t have a lot of iron. About two billion people around the world are iron-deficient.

“Can we improve the plants so they can take up and store more iron?” she said.

The researchers did find that under iron-poor conditions, the URI protein combines with a phosphate molecule, activating a sequence of genetic events to turn on the iron uptake system.

But, Guerinot says, plants are cautious about taking up iron, so they turn the pathway off too early. Too much or too little iron can kill it.

The end goal would be to modify URI so that it would be “on” for a longer period of time and take up more iron, making the crop plant more iron-rich.