A sweet surprise: Revealing new roles for sugars in plants

The fifth post of our Celebrating Basic Plant Science series comes from Mike Haydon, a lecturer at the University of York. He and his research group work on understanding signalling in plants. Here he explains some of his work on integrating sugar metabolism with light signals. You can see more about Mike and his group on his website. The work he discusses below was published in the journal Nature last year (Haydon et al. Nature 502:689-692).



A life based on sugar

Most of us think about sugar every day, be it consciously as we consider our calorie intake, or unconsciously when our brain tells us it’s mealtime. Sugars are among the simplest of carbohydrates and they are the raw material for cellular respiration, which produces energy for almost all living cells. Glucose, a monosaccharide, is the preferred sugar for cellular respiration. Sucrose, most familiar to us as the granulated sugar in our kitchens, is a disaccharide made of glucose and fructose. These, and other simple carbohydrates, are used to build complex carbohydrates such as starch and cellulose in plants, and glycogen and chitin in animals. Sugars are the foundation of cellular metabolism, and produce the wide array of molecules that sustain our carbon-based existence.


The most important process on the planet

Plants, along with algae and some species of bacteria, use photosynthesis to convert carbon dioxide in the air into glucose using energy from sunlight, while producing oxygen as a by-product. Photosynthetic bacteria were responsible for the Great Oxidation Event, which occurred from about 2.5 billion years ago and led to the life-sustaining atmosphere we now live in. Photosynthetic organisms are called autotrophs, because they produce their own sugars to use in cellular metabolism. All other organisms, called heterotrophs, must somehow get their sugars from their environment. For animals, this is ultimately through the plant-based component of their diet. So essentially all the carbon in DSC_0010 smallour bodies was, at some point, converted from carbon dioxide into glucose by photosynthesis. Thus, photosynthesis is probably the most important metabolic process on the planet.

You might think that something so fundamental in biology would be completely understood, and we certainly do know a lot about carbohydrate metabolism. We also know that sugars have functions outside of this basic metabolism. For example in plants they can act as hormones, regulating processes such as cell growth, cell division, flowering time and disease resistance. But there is still a lot we don’t know about how plants regulate carbohydrate metabolism, and sometimes we still find entirely new functions for sugars in biological processes.


How time matters in sugar metabolism (more…)

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