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University of Western Australia

Science is supersizing our vegetables

For those, thinking that fruit and vegetables in the supermarket are getting bigger: That's not just your imagination. And it's not by accident either.

Scientists like Dr. Brendan O'Leary from the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology at UWA are working to boost the size of produce so we get the best bang for our buck in agriculture.

Key to Brendan's work is discovering how plant cells decide how to make use of energy they receive in the form of nutrients. Humans do the same thing but in a different way. When we eat a big meal, our cells need to decide what to do with the nutrients they receive. They will probably store some of these nutrients when they don't immediately need them for energy.

The chemical that is responsible for orchestrating nutritional signaling is called target of rapamycin—aka TOR.

"Imagine TOR as the manager of each cell in charge of nutrition," says Brendan. "It's coordinating the growth effort. If you were to go inside a cell and say, "Who makes the decisions about nutrient use around here? I want to talk to the boss," you'd talk to TOR. TOR isn't the one detecting the actual nutrient levels. TOR receives these signals from some proteins and then directs other proteins to carry out cellular tasks."

Surprising discoveries
"It was very surprising that there was any connection at all between how nutrition works with plants and animals because they get their energy from such different sources," says Brendan. "Plants use photosynthesis and take up nutrients from the soil, whereas animals eat other organisms for energy."

Brendan sees a similarity between improving crop yield and bodybuilding. "After working out, athletes are very particular about their protein and amino acid intake. That's because they want to have enough amino acids in their body to build muscle. With enough amino acids present, their cells make the decision to build more muscle."

In the face of a changing climate, declining resources and a booming population, this research will prove vital for securing a sustainable and energy-efficient food source in the future.


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