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Plant Signal Behav. 2009 February; 4(2): 147–148.
PMCID: PMC2637505

Evaluating the function of putative hormone transporters


Hormones typically serve as long distance signaling molecules. To reach their site of action, hormones need to be transported from the sites of synthesis. Many plant hormones are mobile, thus requiring specific transport systems for the export from their source cells as well as subsequent import into target cells. Hormone transport in general is still poorly understood. Auxin is probably the most intensively studied plant hormone concerning transport in the moment. To advance our understanding of hormone transport we need two principal data sets: information on the properties of the transport systems including substrate specificity and kinetics, and we need to identify candidate genes for the respective transporters. Physiological transport data can provide an important basis for identifying and characterizing candidate transporters and to define their in vivo role. A recent publication in Plant Physiology highlights how kinetic and specificity studies may help to identify cytokinin transporters.1

Key words: kinetin, zeatin, adenine, phytohormone, transport

By definition, hormones are compounds that interact at low concentrations with cellular receptors to modulate signal transduction pathways. A comparison of the chemical structures of animal and plant hormones suggests potential common origins. Peptide hormones are found in both kingdoms and share common processing mechanisms (e.g., TRH, vasopressin and kinins in animals; systemins, phytosulfokines, self incompatibility peptides in plants).2,3 Steroid hormones derived from cholesterol such as testosterone, cortisol and calcitriol regulate development in mammals; the steroid hormone brassinolide is essential for plant development.4 Glutamate can serve as metabolite and signal in both plants and animals.5,6 Finally, lipid and phospholipid-derived signaling compounds such as linoleic acid and arachidonic acid also function in both plants and animals; with phospholipid-derived prostaglandins and eicosanoids bearing similarities to the plant defense compound jasmonic acid.7

Other signaling compounds present in animals have yet to be shown to function in plants, e.g., glycoprotein hormones such as luteinizing hormone, follicle-stimulating hormone or thyroid-stimulating hormone have been not been described to exist in plants.8 Compounds structurally similar to animal amine-derived hormones derived from tyrosine and tryptophan (such as catecholamines and thyroxine) are also present in plants, but appear to function primarily in herbivore defense.9

The best characterized, and arguably most important plant hormones, bear little similarity to animal hormones and are mechanistically distinct. These include auxins, cytokinins, gibberellins, abscisic acid, ethylene and an apparent carotenoid-derivative, the MAX-dependent regulator of auxin signaling.10,11 Arguably, the stress response compound salicylic acid, which functions in stress, wounding and defense responses could also be considered a plant hormone.12

Hormonal signaling mechanisms can be categorized as autocrine (acting at the site of biosynthesis), paracrine (acting in adjacent or proximal cells), and endocrine (acting in cells distal to the site of production). In both, plants and animals, paracrine and endocrine hormone action is mediated and influenced by multiple long distance delivery systems. Hormones move primarily through the circulatory system in animals, but, in plants, are mobilized by transpiration and source-sink flows, which can be directed by chemisomotically-driven cellular uptake and efflux. However, the mechanisms driving uptake and efflux at the cellular level, as well as the proteins that mediate this movement, are surprisingly similar in plants and animals, despite the dissimilarities of plant and animal cell structure (central vacuoles, cell walls and H+ versus K+/Na2+ in/out gradients).

Surprisingly little is known about plant hormone transport. Most hormones have autocrine activity, but in order to act at a distance or to even act on adjacent cells they must be transported across membranes. The existence of cellular export and import mechanisms are suggested by the presence of multiple hormones in the phloem sap13,14 and the well documented polar long distance movement of auxin.15 Brassinosteroid receptors have been demonstrated as integral plasma membrane proteins which receive the hormone signal from outside the cell.16 This suggests a need for the hormone to first move into the apoplasm after biosynthesis. However, until recently, only the cellular auxin transport mechanisms mediated by the AUX/LAX, PIN and AtABCB/PGP proteins has been well characterized (reviewed in ref. 17).

The study of these transporters has benefited from the use of plant, yeast and animal expression systems to characterize the proteins involved. Analyses of auxin transport proteins have capitalized on earlier suppression cloning and radiotracer uptake studies used successfully to characterize ion and metabolite transporters in yeast.1821 In cases where yeast systems have proven intractable for analysis of auxin transport proteins, heterologous systems based on mammalian cell systems have proven to be highly effective for radiotracer uptake studies.1823 Xenopus oocyte expression has been successfully utilized to characterize the AUX/LAX family of auxin influx symporters.24,25 Plant cell culture systems have also been used to characterize transport proteins. This can however be problematic when endogenous substrates are metabolized by the cells, as is the case with IAA in tobacco BY-2 and Arabidopsis cell cultures.19 It is also difficult to assess the function of plant proteins in undifferentiated cell cultures, which may differ from the native function in phloem or xylem parenchyma cells.

A recent article describes the use of a heterologous expression system based on the fission yeast S. pombe to express and characterize the PIN1 auxin efflux protein after knock-out of the endogenous yeast PIN-like gene AEL1.21 Previously, PIN1 had only been functionally expressed in plant cell systems and was nonfunctional when expressed in baker's yeast or mammalian cells.19,22 This report suggests that PIN1, interacts synergistically with the AtABCB19/PGP19 auxin efflux transporter, but appears to also mediate auxin efflux on its own, consistent with the distant phylogenetic similarity of the auxin efflux transporter protein family to major facilitator proteins.

Subsequent work in the Murphy lab has shown that S. pombe can be used for comparisons of all known auxin transporters in a single system in which all ABC transporters and a solitary AUX1-like gene had been knocked out (Yang and Murphy, unpublished). This system also allows for the more detailed analyses of substrate specificity, transport kinetics and coupling mechanisms (primary and secondary active transport, uniport, cotransport antiport) necessary for functional assignment of auxin transport proteins. This system may also provide an attractive alternative to baker's yeast when functional expression of a plant protein in Saccharomyces cerevisiae proves unsuccessful.

Similar efforts are required for characterizing the transport of all other plant hormones including cytokinin. Arabidopsis transporters mediating both trans-zeatin and adenine uptake had been identified using yeast as an expression system.26 Recently, the Schulz and Frommer labs provided a reference data set for trans-zeatin uptake by characterizing radiolabeled trans-zeatin uptake in Arabidopsis cell cultures.1 The data show that the uptake kinetics of trans-zeatin are multiphasic, indicating the presence of both low- and high-affinity transport systems. The protonophore CCCP is an effective inhibitor of cytokinin uptake, consistent with H+-mediated uptake. Other physiologically active cytokinins such as isopentenyladenine and benzylaminopurine are effective competitors of trans-zeatin uptake, whereas allantoin had no inhibitory effect. Adenine competes for zeatin uptake indicating that degradation products of cytokinin oxidases can be transported by the same systems. Comparison of adenine and trans-zeatin uptake in Arabidopsis seedlings reveals similar uptake kinetics. Kinetic properties as well as substrate specificity determined in cell cultures are compatible with the hypothesis that members of the plant-specific PUP transporter family may play a role in adenine transport to scavenge extracellular adenine. In addition, the findings are also compatible with the hypothesis that this class of transporters may be involved at least in low affinity (µM range) cytokinin uptake. PUPs are encoded by a large gene family of 21 members, so it is conceivable that other members of the family may be involved in high affinity transport. Systematic analyses of single knock outs in Arabidopsis and combinations thereof my help to shed more light on the role of PUPs in cytokinin transport.


Previously published online as a Plant Signaling & Behavior E-publication:


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Articles from Plant Signaling & Behavior are provided here courtesy of Landes Bioscience