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What are ‘Plant Hormones’ Doing in Humans? Trent Researchers Make Groundbreaking Discovery

May 21, 2019

Breakthrough research at Trent University deepens our understanding of these hormones, shown to have strong anti-cancer effects

Megan Aoki,

Over the years, researchers have found ‘plant hormones’ known as cytokinins (CKs) in increasingly more kinds of organisms – everything from bacteria and nematodes, to dogs and beavers. In a recent breakthrough, Trent University researchers have now discovered that humans also make and process these hormones, which have shown strong anti-cancer effects.

“The widespread abundance of cytokinins in virtually every biological system we examine indicates an important evolutionary role of these hormones across many kingdoms of life,” says Megan Aoki, an Environmental and Life Sciences Ph.D. student at Trent. “Therefore, the importance of this research cannot be understated.”

The findings were recently published in the journal FASEB BioAdvances.

Ms. Aoki is conducting the research as part of Trent’s Emery Laboratory, studying this diverse group of hormones, which are already being used as important growth-promoting agents in crop-farming. She works with Dr. Neil Emery, one of the world’s leading experts in the study of plant hormones.

“Our research will continue to expand our understanding of the roles of these hormones in humans, with potential implications for human health,” Ms. Aoki adds. “It is possible that these molecules are simply ‘life hormones,’ that flow through the biosphere and not specific to any one set of creatures. Moreover, our findings will contribute to the general knowledge base of these hormones which can translate into other fields such as agriculture, medicine and beyond.” 

In plants, CKs are used to control growth and development processes such as photosynthesis, root growth, flowering of ornamentals and seed yield of crops.

The 27-year-old says her initial research sought to expand the understanding of these ‘plant hormones’ using human cells.

“I found that human cells make a variety of different cytokinins, all of which are normally found in plants,” she says. “Moreover, the human cells have the ability to alter cytokinins indicating that there is more to the cytokinin story than previously thought. To put it another way, they must, surprisingly, have the biochemical machinery to deal with plant hormones.”

The understanding of these hormones in mammals and humans is still in its infancy.

“This is a very exciting position to be in because we are in uncharted territory and so much remains to be explored,” Ms. Aoki says.

Learn more about the Emery Laboratory and Trent’s Environmental and Life Sciences program