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Why Scientists Made Venus Flytraps That Glow

Provoking a Venus flytrap requires a certain finesse. If you brush just one of the trigger hairs on the inside of its leaves, the plant probably won’t react. But if you snap it back fast enough, it’ll spring into action, shutting its famous mouth.

Waiting for a double trip probably prevents the plant from wasting energy on raindrops or other things that aren’t nutritious flies. But despite centuries of interest in the species, no one was quite sure how plants remembered the first trigger to act on a second.

In an article published last week in Nature Plants, researchers reported finding the cause: calcium ions. By getting the traps to glow when the calcium entered their cells, a team of scientists was able to show how the ions build up when the hairs are triggered, eventually causing the popping.

Calcium is used to transmit information between cells in many different life forms, said Mitsuyasu Hasebe, head of the laboratory at the National Basic Biology Institute in Okazaki, Japan, where the research was conducted. The molecule is normally “scarce in the cell, but abundant on the outside,” he said, making it easy for cells to recognize and react to changes in concentration.

In 1988, a couple of plant scientists speculated that two overlapping streams of calcium ions could have prompted the Venus flytrap to shut down, but they haven’t had a chance to test their idea. More recently, another group of researchers – including Rainer Hedrich, who participated in the new paper – solved part of the puzzle by showing that electrical signals tell the flytrap when its trigger hairs have been pressed. They also speculated that calcium helps the plant keep track.

To visualize the flytrap’s memory mechanism, Dr. Hasebe and his colleagues inserted a special type of gene into the plant. This gene, widely used in biology, produces a protein that fluoresces green when it binds to a target, in this case a calcium ion.

Hiraku Suda – the article’s lead author and a doctoral student in Dr. Hasebe’s lab at the time of the research – was tasked with integrating the gene, which required infecting the plant’s leaves with a modified bacterium and then using those leaves. to grow new shoots. .

It took him two and a half years to figure it out. The key, it turned out, was growing the plants in the dark, which may have made them easier to infect with bacteria. When it finally worked, he was so excited, “I haven’t slept in a week,” he said.

Subsequently, the researchers began targeting the plant. After a single touch on a sensory hair, a green blush appeared at the base of the hair and quickly spread through the leaves, indicating a surge of calcium ions.

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