A case of plant blindness

Plant & zo

The science of plants and more


A case of plant blindness

Most scientist working on plants would have noticed at some time that plants are ignored by a lot of other life science researchers. Sometimes it will be during a talk whereby the presenter say something along the line ‘in all eukaryotes we have gene family X’ while you know gene family X is absent in plants. Other times it will be when reading and article whose topic is spans a broad range of living organisms. The later happened with me lately when reading an interesting article about phosphoinositides. Plant blindness is the term that has been coined for this kind of ignorance and ignoring. And there has a lot of talk on the internet among plant scientists about plant blindness.

At first I did not intend to write about that here so soon, but reading that review article made me change my mind. The thing is a review article is summarising all what is known about the topic, in this case phosphoinositides. A lot of the time when something falls outside the scope of the review the authors will to say so and when possible refer were the reader can go to if they really want to know more about that topic. As a researcher we use review articles to get an overview of the research that has been done. Starting out in a new topic it might be used as a guide to get to know that topic.

So the review that I am reading is talking about phosphoinositides in the context of mammalian cells and assumes that the reader reads the review because it is also interested in phosphoinositides in the context of mammalian cells. So far so good would you think. Except for the nice little summary table about the different phosphoinositides, their abundance and where we can find them in the cell. This table is labelled ‘Abundance, location, measurement and roles of phosphoinositides in eukaryotic cells’, this means that they claim that the data they present here is correct for not only mammalian cells, but also yeast, insect, plant cells, etc.. This, however, turned out not to be true. Working on phosphoinositides in plants have taught me a few things. The over all message is that plants do things slightly differently. Firstly, the abundance for some of the phosphoinositides in plants is different compared to what is known for mammalian cells. And secondly,

some proteins of the phosphoinositide pathway that we known from mammalian cells are absent in plants.

For the phosphoinositides community to belief and accept that things are different in plants took time. After a combination of having multiple plant genomes sequenced, and a number of publications telling things are different in plants. We are finally at a stage that we plant researchers can say with confidence:

‘No, it is not behaving the same as in mammalian cells, we are not sure what is going on in stead but we belief it is like …’.

It takes time to get to this stage. It can also make reading articles from the time when they did not know what was going on confusing. It is therefore damaging to have a new review article just ignoring this difference between plant and mammalian phosphoinositides. Anyone new in the field will come away with the believe that phosphoinositides are organised/regulated similar in mammalian and plant cells, therefore receiving a set back in their research.

So how can we change this. What I would like to see is simply some acknowledgement that things might be different in other organisms. As a writer of a review article you can do this to either check what the recent literature says about your area of interest in other organisms. If you can not find anything recent that your are happy with citing, then get in contact with someone who is actually studying your topic in another organism, I am sure they would be happy to help you. In addition, it would be nice if editors can remind the authors of review articles of this.

Now I would not let you go before telling that plant blindness aside, the authors of that review article on phosphoinositides did actually a good job. The article gives some nice overview of tools that can be used for analysis. It also gives some nice examples of how phosphoinositide protein interactions probably work.

Published by Femke de Jong

A plant scientist who wants to let people know more about the wonders of plant science. Follow me at @plantandzo

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