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Alpine pennycress: Link to photo information
The new gene-expression technique has already shed fresh light on how alpine pennycress takes up heavy metals from soil. Click the image for more information about it.

Lighting up Gene Expression in Plants

By Luis Pons
January 7, 2005

New light has been shed on where specific genes are expressed in plants, thanks to a new research technique that illuminates where genes of interest are functioning.

The method was developed at the Agricultural Research Service's U.S. Plant, Soil and Nutrition Laboratory in Ithaca, N.Y., by ARS plant physiologist Leon Kochian. He was assisted by Hendrick Küpper, a Humboldt Foundation postdoctoral fellow who is now at the University of Konstanz in Germany, and ARS support scientist Laura Ort Seib.

The technique, which uses the latest hybridization and microscopy technologies, came about as part of the Ithaca lab's ongoing studies of plants that absorb metals. It may eventually help with plant studies of all kinds, according to Kochian.

The new method, which provides immediate digital and tabular data, lets scientists work with large pieces of tissue from plants that have been exposed to different environments. It eliminates many time-consuming steps associated with current methods for pinpointing gene-expression location.

Knowing in which tissues or organs a gene and its product are expressed greatly helps researchers understand that gene's role in plant function.

When a gene is expressed, an RNA sequence that's a mirror image of its DNA sequence is created. With the new procedure, a similar mirror image is made of the target gene's mRNA molecule. This image, called a synthetic nucleotide, is tagged with a fluorescent compound. It then binds tightly with the original mRNA molecule that's produced when the gene is expressed, illuminating cells where the target gene is functioning.

The technique has already led the Ithaca researchers to significant findings regarding alpine pennycress, Thlaspi caerulescens, an important plant that tolerates and accumulates extremely high levels of zinc, cadmium and nickel.

Read more about the research in the January issue of Agricultural Research magazine, available online at:

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.