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Plants let chloroplasts know the time

Posted on 14 March 2013

Plant cells communicate information about the time of day to their chloroplasts, the part of their cells that underpins all agricultural productivity on Earth, according to new research involving three University of York students which is published today in Science.

Plant cells contain an internal clock (the circadian clock), which is able to regulate cellular processes so that they occur at the optimal time of day, causing a big increase in plant productivity. As chloroplasts are the site of photosynthesis, their function is highly dependent on the daily changes in light environment.

It is thought that chloroplasts were originally free-living organisms that were incorporated into the cells of plants very early in plant evolutionary history. A result of this is that chloroplasts have retained some of the cellular machinery required to produce proteins from their own chloroplast DNA. An essential part of this machinery are ‘sigma factors’, and in present-day plants, they are encoded for by the cell’s nuclear DNA.

The researchers who included students in York’s Department of Biology – Sarah Wetherill and Eleanor Walton, who are studying for PhDs and third year undergraduate Kelly Atkins – were able to show that the production of sigma factors is controlled by the plant’s clock. This enables the nuclear DNA to regulate the activity of chloroplast genes, and ensure that the production of proteins essential for photosynthesis is co-ordinated with daylight.

This is a major breakthrough that provides a completely new perspective on daily circadian rhythms

Dr Antony Dodd

The York students carried out experimental work which provided important results for the paper.

Lead author, Dr Antony Dodd, formerly of the Department of Biology at York and now of Bristol University’s School of Biological Sciences, said: “This is a major breakthrough that provides a completely new perspective on daily circadian rhythms. We have learnt from this work that timing information moves between different parts of the cell, and in particular involves the chloroplast, which is the part of the cell that underpins all agricultural productivity on the planet. It’s particularly fascinating that the process we identified makes use of genes that pre-date modern land plants and originates from the bacteria that gave rise to chloroplasts."

The research also involved scientists at the University of Edinburgh, Tokyo Institute of Technology and Chiba University, Japan.

Notes to editors:

  • 'Circadian Control of Chloroplast Transcription by a Nuclear-Encoded Timing Signal' by Noordally, Z., Ishii, K., Atkins, K., Wetherill, S., Kusakina, J., Walton, E., Kato, M., Azuma, M., Tanaka, K., Hanaoka, M., and Dodd, AN. in Science
  • Funding Bodies: The Royal Society, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, UK (BBSRC), Anglo-Japanese Daiwa Foundation, the Nuffield Foundation, the University of York, Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology of Japan, the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, and the Sumitomo Foundation.
  • More information about the University of York’s Department of Biology at

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