December 19, 2014

Stress-relief strategies in plants

Please describe your role at RIKEN.

I have been unit leader of the Regulatory Network Research Unit since 2008. Our unit uses plants to solve environmental and agricultural problems. We prioritize research that addresses societal needs and ensure that our findings reach the public.

Specifically, we are looking for ways to increase crop yields in nutrient-limited conditions by understanding the mechanisms involved in the uptake and utilization of nutrients in plants. We are also developing efficient methods of removing radioactive cesium in soil and inhibiting its accumulation in plants through the potassium uptake and transport system—the mechanism by which radiocesium is absorbed in plants. We expect this research to help decontaminate radiocesium in areas affected by the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant accident.

How did you become interested in your current field of research?

I am interested in how plants respond to stressful conditions, especially their management of nutrient deficiency and their ability to avoid absorbing dangerous substances such as nuclear wastes. As a postdoctoral researcher in the United States, I conducted research on the potassium deficiency response and have since expanded my interests to other essential nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus.

What excites you the most about your current research?

Recently, we isolated several chemicals that can alter the characteristics of cesium uptake by plants. One chemical in particular binds to cesium and converts it into a form that plants cannot absorb from soil. This finding could provide a solution for safe agriculture in the Tohoku region.

What made you decide to become a scientist?

When I was 12 years old, I read an article about genetic engineering that introduced the ‘pomato’—a genetically engineered plant that produces tomatoes above ground and potatoes underground. I found it so impressive that I decided to study plant science.

What do you think has been the most interesting discovery in your field in the last few years?

A recent study showed that the nitrate transporter AtNRT1.1 also functions as a nitrate sensor in the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana, which means that nitrate needs to bind to AtNRT1.1 to trigger the primary nitrate response. This finding is the first report of a macronutrient sensor in plants. I hope that this discovery will give me useful clues in my research into a similar sensor for potassium in plants.

How has being at RIKEN helped your research?

picture of Ryoung Shin at her lab
© 2014 RIKEN

RIKEN provides a wonderful research environment because of its advanced facilities and strong internal collaborations. The institution offers a unique opportunity to conduct interdisciplinary research, which is one of the most efficient ways to find answers to scientific questions. For example, I am actively collaborating with Kazuki Saito’s Metabolomics Research Group to analyze metabolic products in plants, which has given me access to the most advanced equipment and resources for studying metabolites. These partnerships have been both enjoyable and rewarding.

Please tell us about your professional and personal goals.

I aspire never to lose my scientific curiosity and to be remembered as a good scientist.