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Open Access Research article

Nickel affects xylem Sap RNase a and converts RNase A to a urease

Cheng Bai12*, Liping Liu1 and Bruce W Wood2

Author Affiliations

1 Laboratory of Pests Comprehensive Governance for Tropical Crops, of Ministry of Agriculture, Hainan Laboratory for Monitoring and Control of Tropical Agricultural Pests, Hainan Engineering Research Center for Biological Control of Tropical Crops Diseases and Insect Pests, Environment and Plant Protection Institute, Chinese Academy of Tropical Agricultural Sciences, Haikou, Hainan 571101, China

2 United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, Southeast Fruit and Tree Nut Research Laboratory, Byron, GA 31008, USA

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BMC Plant Biology 2013, 13:207  doi:10.1186/1471-2229-13-207

Published: 9 December 2013



Nickel (Ni) is an essential micronutrient; however, its metabolic or physiological functions in plants and animals are largely uncharacterized. The ribonucleases (RNase, e.g., RNase A) are a large family of hydrolases found in one form or many forms facilitating nitrogen (N) cycling. It is currently unknown how either a deficiency or excess of Ni influences the functionality of ribonucleases, like RNase A. This is especially true for perennial crops possessing relatively high Ni requirements.


We report that the 'rising’ xylem sap of pecan [Carya illinoinensis (Wangenh.) K. Koch, a long-lived tree] at bud break contains a 14 kDa RNase A (aka, RNase 1), which amount has a 33% greater in Ni-deficient as in Ni-sufficient trees when exposed to Ni ions exhibits ureolytic activity. The homologous 13.4 kDa bovine pancreatic RNase A likewise exhibits ureolytic activity upon exposure to Ni ions. Ni therefore affects enzymatic function of a typically non-metalloenzyme, such as it transforms to an enzyme capable of hydrolyzing a linear amide; thus, converting an endonuclease esterase into a urease.


We conclude that Ni potentially affects the level and activity of RNase A present in the spring xylem sap of pecan trees, and probably in other crops, it has the same influence. The catalytic property of RNase A appears to shift from a nuclease to a urease relying on Ni exposure. This is suggestive that RNase A might possess novel metabolic functionality regarding N-metabolism in perennial plants. The ability of Ni to convert the activity of plant and animal RNase A from that of a ribonuclease to a urease indicates a possible unrecognized beneficial metabolic function of Ni in organisms, while also identifying a potential detrimental effect of excessive Ni on N related metabolic activity if there is sufficient disruption of Ni homeostasis.

Urea; Pecan; Xylem sap; Ribonuclease; Nickel; Nitrogen cycling