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February 8, 2008
By Mikalee Byerman
With drought conditions devastating the agricultural landscape throughout the country and around the world, scientists are focusing their efforts on helping plants tolerate extreme environmental conditions.
One example: A University researcher may have helped train an annual crop how not to kill itself during drought. The broader application: If this works in other annual crops and then in the field, agricultural crops could be able to tolerate droughts, with significant impacts on the economy and on lives. The same technology even may apply to lawn and garden plants, helping local residents work toward essentially drought-proofing their landscape.
“In our country, the impact could be in the billions of dollars — we’d certainly see food prices going down,” said Ron Mittler, associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology in the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources (CABNR). “But in Third World countries, for example, this research ultimately could save lives.”
The two-year study, a collaboration between the University and University of California, Davis scientists Rosa M. Rivero and Professor Eduardo Blumwald, led to a recent article published in the renowned journal PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America).
From a simplistic perspective, annual plants go through four stages: germination, growth, seed production and death. The death process, also called senescence, begins earlier and more aggressively when plants are faced with environmental stressors like drought.
“Annual plants quickly sacrifice everything — including their own lives — to produce a few viable seeds. That’s what they’ve been programmed to do,” Mittler said. “In the field, you don’t want that. So essentially, we tricked the plants not to activate senescence.”
The “trick” in this research involved stimulating cytokinin production in tobacco plants through genetic modification; cytokinins are plant hormones that prevent senescence. With increased cytokinins, the test plants essentially returned to life after the scientists simulated an extreme drought — 15 days without water.
“Our control group did not recover from the stress and died,” Mittler says. “Our test groups … they went through hell, but they survived.”
They not only survived; in fact, they thrived. The crops experienced vigorous growth after the drought and produced strong yields.
The next steps will involve replicating the research in other annual crops — such as corn, wheat and rice — and then in the field. But if the research works as well in the field as it did in the lab, Mittler predicts improved agricultural production in the future as crops are trained not to kill themselves during times of drought.
“I’m going to stop short of using the term ‘magic bullet,’ but the results were amazing,” he said. “I truly believe that when you teach an annual plant how not to kill itself, then you’ll really start to see all that the plant can do.”