4 September 2015

Surprise: Plant roots consume lipids


To the surprise of researchers, new evidence shows that plants can absorb lipids through their roots. The research, published in the journal Nature Communications, was led by the Department of Plant and Environmental Science at the University of Copenhagen.

Lisbeth Rosager Poulsen and Rosa Lopéz-Marqués.

“We researchers have always believed that plants are unable to absorb lipids from their surroundings, and that plants only produce them by the aid of solar energy. Our research now demonstrates that plant roots are equipped with a molecular system that allows them to absorb lipids,” explains Lisbeth Rosager Poulsen.

Florescent lipid absorbed in a root tip.

Lisbeth Rosager Poulsen and Rosa López-Marqués are the leading researchers behind the new results. Both are associate professors at the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences.

The researchers have been working with Arabidopsis, an often-used model plant for plant biology research. They have found that Arabidopsis root tips contain a protein that helps with lipid transport in plants.

Plants are raised in growth chambers where temperature and light intensity are controlled to produce a ’normal’ daily rhythm where, for example, it is darker and cooler at night.

“The identification of this type of active transport mechanism for lipid absorption in plants is a rather unexpected find, and comes as a surprise to us. Now, it is exciting to consider the system’s role for plants, and to continue research of this function,” says Rosa López-Marqués, and Lisbeth Rosager Poulsen adds:

”At present, we see three possible functions. Firstly, the absorption of lipids from decomposing organic material could be the source of an alternative energy source for plant roots, so that plants are not entirely dependent upon solar energy. While controversial, it makes sense for a plant to be able to make use of accessible soil-based energy sources. Secondly, it may be that plants aren’t after the energy from the lipids, but for the phosphate content, as it is vital for plant growth. The third possibility is that the system can specifically detect and absorb lysoPC, a phospholipid that serves as an important signalling molecule. Among other things, lysoPC can influence root development.”