CARDIFF U. (UK)/DUKE (US)—An international team of researchers has discovered a protein that plays a key role in plant cell development—making sure that the right number of cells end up in the right places.

Scientists from Cardiff University and Duke University say that the well-known developmental protein Short-root not only plays a part in determining what cells will become, but controls cell division as well.

“It’s a remarkably straightforward answer,” says Philip Benfey, director of the  Center for Systems Biology at Duke University.

“Considering the level of complexity that is so often found in biology, this is simplicity itself.”

Findings, published in the July 1 issue of the journal Nature, may have implications for animals and improve understanding of what happens when organs are deformed.

The research team had already studied the molecular-level events involving Short-root and another protein, Scarecrow, that determine how particular cells in plants develop into different types.

Researchers also had a good understanding of the factors which allow cells to go through their cycle and divide into two daughter cells.

“What was missing was a connection between the two,” says Rosangela Sozzani, postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy at Duke University, who was lead author of the study.

The research team combined a number of experimental techniques and technologies to produce a dynamic genome-wide view of the genetic events that Short-root and its partner Scarecrow set into motion within a single type of cell in Arabidopsis plants.

They found that at the very same time that cells divide, Short-root and Scarecrow switch on the gene cyclin D6. Cyclin D6 is one of a family of genes that govern cell growth and division.

“Not only does this finding have practical significance to our understanding of how plants develop, this may also be a fundamental process which is relevant to animals as well,” says Jim Murray, professor at Cardiff University.

“For example, we already know that cyclin D6 is present in humans. We also know that disruption of this process can lead to tumours or badly-formed organs, so it is vital that we know more about it.”

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