GABA is best known as a neurotransmitter helping animals to walk, talk, think and breath. However, GABA is also known in the plant world as a key carbon:nitrogen metabolite that increases in concentration massively in plant tissues in response to stress – so when plants encounter drought, salinity, acid soils, anoxia, pathogens or extreme temperatures. Also GABA can affect plant growth or guide pollen tubes through female tissue affecting fertilisation and seed set.
Our work out today in Nature Communications shows that GABA can indeed be a signal in plants. Interestingly, it can also affect electrical signals in plants – so is similar to its mode of action in animals – but it acts through very different proteins.
The proteins that transduce GABA signals in plants are anion channels so have a similar functional property to GABA receptors in animals, however, they are very different looking proteins that share little similarity in structure.
Interestingly, these proteins are widespread in plants and are already known to have key physiological roles. The fact that GABA can modify their activity means that we have come closer to understanding how plants interpret their environment i.e. how plants transduce environmental signals into changes in growth.
By identifying this novel signalling pathway in plants we believe we have opened up the doors to a new research areas that could be exploited to improve plant responses to stress.