Skip to main content
©KAUST 2023; Xavier Pita

Following stress could help plants in drought

Pioneering research to explain plants’ response to abiotic stress has important potential for improving future plant performance.

How plants deal with stress is a question that fascinates KAUST researcher Monika Chodasiewicz.

Since arriving at KAUST in November 2020, Chodasiewicz has built a group studying stress granules in plants. She now leads a team of nine, including postdocs, Ph.D. and master’s students.

Chodasiewicz is pioneering research in a field related to plant stress response. Under conditions of high temperature, salinity or drought, plants form aggregates of some of their cellular components — proteins, genetic material (RNA or DNA) and metabolites — into a membraneless structure known as stress granules, a type of biomolecular condensate. When conditions improve and the plant needs to resume growth, it releases the components back into the cell.

Monika Chodasiewicz, a pioneering researcher in the field of plant stress response, studies the formation of stress granules in plant cells under adverse conditions. Her research aims to identify the components in desert plants that contribute to their resilience in challenging environmental conditions. ©KAUST 2023; Eliza Mkhitaryan

During her years as a postdoc at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, Chodasiewicz investigated methods for studying interactions between proteins and metabolites. It was there that she first came across the unusual cellular structures, discovered their importance for stress response/tolerance and realized that although other researchers had previously identified these stress granules, nobody had explained their role in plants.

Using a multidisciplinary approach that combines biochemistry, molecular biology and cell biology, Chodasiewicz and her team are studying these stress granules to help understand plant response to stress at a cellular level.

“To answer the big question of how we help plants deal with stress, we need to zoom in and first answer a basic question — what is the mechanism involved?” Chodasiewicz says.

“If a plant is sequestering certain components into the stress granule, what is the mechanism that leads to particular proteins or types of mRNA being selected?”

“If we can understand how the stress granules are formed and identify their components, we can use this information to improve plant tolerance to abiotic stresses, such as high temperature, salinity or low oxygen,” Chodasiewicz says.

Another focus of her research, which supports one of Saudi Arabia’s national research priorities, is to discover the components of desert plants that make them resistant to stressful environmental conditions.

The team is close to identifying a protein sequence that might be the signal required to change protein properties to form condensates under particular stress conditions.

Their research also shows that many stress granules formed under different conditions share some similarities, indicating the presence of common components. “Under low oxygen, heat stress or salinity, there are some proteins that will always be present,” she says.

©KAUST 2023; Eliza Mkhitaryan

So far all of their experiments have been lab-based, using the model plant Arabidopsis, but the group has recently started working with tomato and rice. “Once we have some conclusive results from the lab with these crops, we will perform field trials to see if we can really improve tolerance.”

While working in a new research area presents opportunities, it also brings challenges. “Whenever we discover something, because we don’t have support from previous research, it is more difficult to convince reviewers about what we have found,” says Chodasiewicz.

At the same time, she says, there is a lot of interest in her work because many researchers have seen stress granules in plant cells without knowing what they were and, like her, are keen to solve the mystery.

“I have found a niche that I can follow, and if I do it well at this early stage, then I hope to become a leader in this field,” she says.

Chodasiewicz encourages other young researchers who may be wondering about branching out on a new path: “If you are convinced that something is interesting and there is still space to make some meaningful discoveries, don’t let others discourage you. Just go for it.”