Fresh water constitutes less than 1% of the surface water on earth, yet the importance of this simple molecule to all life forms is immeasurable. Water represents the most vital reagent for chemical reactions occurring in a cell. In plants, water provides the structural support necessary for plant growth. It acts as the carrier for nutrients absorbed from the soil and transported to the shoot. It also provides the chemical components necessary to generate sugar and biomass from light and carbon dioxide during photosynthesis. While the importance of water to plants is clear, an understanding as to how plants perceive water is limited. Most studies have focused on environmental conditions in which severe limitation (drought) or severe excess (flooding) of water is simulated. While these are important stress conditions, the plant may also sense and respond to differences in moisture content under non-stress conditions. Much as how light can act as a signal or a stress depending on the intensity, water may also have such a dual effect. In support of this hypothesis, work on hydrotropism has shown that roots have the ability to sense moisture gradients and direct growth towards favorable conditions.
Current studies indicate that moisture signaling may extend beyond hydrotropism and regulate nearly every aspect of root development. In a process we term "hydropatterning", local contact of the root tip with a liquid or air environment has the ability to cause stark differences in the development of tissues. Hydropatterning is observed in Arabidopsis thaliana as well as other flowering plants. The goal of our current research is to establish a foundation for understanding hydropatterning by characterizing the changes in growth and development that are directly affected. Using developmental and cell-type specific approaches along with genetic and genomic tools, our research will identify the key pathways through which moisture signaling acts to affect these processes.