Persulfidation in plants: the new phosphorylation?

31 Oct 2017 - By: Jonathan Ingram

Persulfidation in plants: the new phosphorylation?

Persulfidation image 68-17 Oct 2017_opt
Persulfidated proteins in the plant glycolysis pathway. Reproduced from the paper by Aroca et al. (Open Access, see

By Jonathan Ingram, Journal of Experimental Botany

One in 20 proteins in Arabidopsis is persulfidated: this we now know. Evidence of the role played by hydrogen sulfide signalling in plants has been building in recent years, and it is new methodology which has revealed the likely extent. Indeed, the study by Angeles Aroca and colleagues  in Journal of Experimental Botany goes further in showing an association with a wide range of biological functions. See also the separate Insight article for further reflection on the implications of this ground-breaking research, including the questions it opens up from our knowledge of animal systems.

Persulfidation proteome reveals the regulation of protein function by hydrogen sulfide in diverse biological processes in Arabidopsis


More than just an intermediate: hydrogen sulfide signalling in plants


Rotten eggs and air pollution were, until quite recently, most people’s first and last thoughts on hydrogen sulfide (H2S). But research in animals and then plants has been ripping the lid on its role in signalling over the past decade. Despite this, there have been question marks against some of the methodology for identifying persulfidated proteins, and a new technique has been sought. The tag-switch method, described in 2014 by Zhang et al., is the answer. In the first step of this technique methylsulfonylbenzothiazole (MSBT) is used to block both thiol and persulfide groups; after this, the activated disulphide reacts to a tag-bearing nucleophile (CN-biotin).

The whole persulfidome

Aroca et al. looked at the whole Arabidopsis persulfidome, a significant undertaking but one which will be immensely valuable for the field. Over 2000 persulfidated proteins were identified in wild-type plants. The authors also looked at L-CYSTEINE DESULFHYDRASE 1 (DES1) mutants – the DES1 enzyme is critical for cytosolic sulfide production needed for signalling. Although only 47 proteins were down-persulfidated compared with the control, specific targets included protein kinases, phosphatases and defence response molecules.

Aroca et al.: ‘The 2015 persulfidated proteins identified in wild-type plants represent at least 5% of the entire proteome of 35 386 proteins encoded by the Arabidopsis thaliana genome … Moreover, our proteomics analysis was performed on plants grown under physiological conditions and the magnitude of this modification may be even higher under conditions where sulfide has been demonstrated to play a signaling role, such as plant responses to a variety of plant stresses, autophagy, stomatal movement and photosynthesis.’ 

Considering the implications of the work in an Insight article, Milos Filipovic and Vladimir Jovanovic draw from animal physiology, noting the importance, for example, of understanding links with another gasotransmitter, nitric oxide (NO); and from use of persulfidation in human medicine, they look to the possibilities for plant pathogen defence. They agree with the authors about just how fundamental persulfidation might be in plant signalling, making the parallel with phosphorylation.

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Journal of Experimental Botany publishes an exciting mix of research, review and comment on fundamental questions of broad interest in plant science. Regular special issues highlight key areas.


Author: Jonathan Ingram
Category: Journal of Experimental Botany
Jonathan Ingram - Author Profile

Jonathan Ingram

Jonathan Ingram is Senior Commissioning Editor/ Science Writer for Journal of Experimental Botany. Jonathan moved from lab research into publishing and communications with the launch of Trends in Plant Science in 1995, then going on to New Phytologist and, in the third sector, Age UK and Mind.