Thursday, October 22, 2015

Plant Growth Hormone - Ethylene

Ever throw away a brown banana which seemed to have been green just yesterday? Was the banana part of a bunch? Were there any tomatoes or apples on your counter by the banana?
Augustus Binu [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The culprit, in that case, is ethylene, a phytohormone. Yes, just like animals, plants have hormones that control growth, development and stress perception! Ethylene is a simple molecule composed of 2 carbons attached via a double bond and sandwiched between 4 hydrogens (H2C=CH2).
Ethylene chemical structure Public Domain, Ben Mills posted on Wikimedia
So how does such a simple molecule make bananas become brown and mushy? Same way all developmental changes occur, through changes in gene expression! Ethylene is simply the signal molecule and perceived from both internal and external sources. It can be volatilized, aka become a gas, and is involved in a wide range of processes from germination and growth to fruit ripening and abscission, even playing a role in gravitropism and stress response. Scientists have been studying ethylene for over 100 years. It was first described in 1901!

In most fruits, ethylene is the primary hormone that guides ripening. In the case of our banana, they are actually picked green and then exposed to large quantities of ethylene gas to ripen them artificially so they all ripen at the correct time to go to market. Inside the banana's cells, ethylene binds to specialized receptors (ETR1) that are found on the cell membranes. 

While one often thinks about gene regulation being based on positive interactions, a hormone binds and turns something on, ethylene binding to the receptor actually deactivates this receptor! Without ethylene, the receptor is keeping CTR1 activated so that it keeps the downstream proteins inactive. When ethylene binds, it turns the receptor off so that CTR1 is no longer activated and EIN2 can then stabilize the EIN3 transcription factor which activates ethylene responsive genes.
Ethylene regulatory network, personal illustration, based on Shi et al 2012  model

For our banana, going from a hard, green, bitter unripe banana to a soft, yellow, sweet ripe banana requires a plethora of genes from many pathways. In fact, a study showed that over 100 pathways were involved in ripening. These genes are responsible for softening the tissue, changing starch to sugar, production of aromatics, and more. Next time you take a bite of your ripe banana, remember the importance of ethylene and how many genes were involved to make this perfect bite!


Alexander and Grierson, 2002  J. Exp. Bot. 53 (377): 2039-2055. doi: 10.1093/jxb/erf072 
Asif, M., et al, 2014. BMC Plant Biol. 14: 316.  doi:  10.1186/s12870-014-0316-1
Shi Y, et al., 2012. Plant Cell 24 (6):2578-2595. doi:10.1105/tpc.112.098640
Wikipedia. Ethylene