Oxidative Stress and Redox Signalling in Plants


Cell signalling is a critically important aspect of biology, being the mechanism by which organisms, tissues and cells coordinate their activity and survive environmental change and stress. Numerous biomolecules are involved but small reactive compounds known as reactive oxygen species (ROS) and reactive nitrogen species (RNS) are key players in this intricate network of signalling. Such compounds are inherently toxic, with increased ROS leading to a condition known as oxidative stress. However, in plants, numerous physiological responses are modulated by the presence of ROS, such as hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) and RNS, such as nitric oxide (NO), including root growth, stomatal closure and cell death. Proteins such as kinases, phosphatases and metabolic enzymes are able to be controlled by the presence of H2O2 and NO. Often, thiol groups on proteins are the target for modulation, but the presence and interactions with other redox compounds such as glutathione also need to be considered.

Key Concepts

  • Stress responses in plants often lead to the accumulation of reactive oxygen species (ROS) such as hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) and reactive nitrogen species (RNS) such as nitric oxide (NO).
  • Cells maintain an internal environment which is very reducing, and if this is disrupted, for example by the addition of oxidising compounds, the result is known as oxidative stress.
  • The presence of ROS is a main way to enhance oxidative stress conditions.
  • ROS such as H2O2, as well as NO, are made in plants by dedicated enzymes, and there are mechanisms for the removal of these biomolecules too, such as through the action of antioxidants.
  • Many physiological functions use ROS and RNS as part of their control mechanisms, including germination, root development, stomatal closure and programmed cell death.
  • ROS and RNS are both known to modulate levels of gene expression, such that some genes are expressed to a higher extent, while expression for others is reduced.
  • ROS and RNS can modulate the activity of proteins such as MAP kinases, phosphatases and metabolic enzymes.
  • The covalent modification of thiol groups in proteins is a key way for ROS and RNS to partake in cell signalling, to alter protein function.
  • Dedicated redox proteins such as thioredoxin are instrumental in the control of redox signalling in cells.
  • Cell signalling involving ROS and RNS should not be considered in isolation, but the impact of other compounds such as glutathione and hydrogen sulfide also needs to be considered.

Keywords: antioxidants; cell signalling; hydrogen peroxide; hydrogen sulfide; oxidative stress; nitric oxide; reactive oxygen species; redox signalling; signal transduction

Figure 1. Some of the ROS and RNS which are found in cells and some of their interactions.
Figure 2. Modifications of thiol groups in proteins may be numerous, and follows possible reactions with ROS, NO, glutathione and H2S.
Figure 3. Examples of redox signalling pathways but interactions between them are not shown.


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Further Reading

Hancock JT (ed) (2008) Redox‐Mediated Signal Transduction: Methods and Protocols, Part of the Methods in Molecular Biology Series, vol. 476. New York, USA: Humana Press.

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Hancock, John T(Mar 2016) Oxidative Stress and Redox Signalling in Plants. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0026508]