“It’s like a switch we can turn on and off to modulate how plants cope with water stress.”
A three-year drought has farmers and food companies seeking new strategies in securing a stable food supply. The work of a southern California plant scientist could offer one solution in developing drought tolerant crops.
Long lab hours paid off at the University of California, Riverside. Plant science research conducted here may one day change the food industry. A plant cell biologist at UC Riverside has made a major breakthrough in the development of drought resistant crops.
Sean Cutler explained, “It’s like a switch we can turn on and off to modulate how plants cope with water stress.”
Cutler used a thermal imaging camera to read leaf temperature on a tomato plant. He said, “When we treat the plants with the chemical ABA or the synthetic chemicals that we discovered it causes them to stop losing water and as a result their leaf temperature will rise.”
ABA is short for abscicic acid. The camera tells him if the plant is making ABA or reacting to its presence. A single leaf has thousands of pores which open and close. “When water levels go down they close their pores to keep water in.”
Cutler discovered a new compound he has named quinabactin. It sets off a molecular response to protect stressed plants. He said, “This was the big breakthrough because now we have a synthetic chemical that allows us to do what ABA does.”
Quinabactin basically puts plants in standby mode so they conserve water. The synthetic compound mimics ABA. “This was the needle in the haystack from screening through 65,000 compounds.”
Cutler said it would be too expensive and ineffective to produce the natural hormone on a large scale. “We spray the plants with this compound and look to see what happens to their ability to withstand drought and to survive after drought.”
Cutler’s team began its research with the Arabidopsis plant – one commonly used in many plant labs. “But when we tested it on soybean we could see it was quite potent on soybean.”
The compound’s also being tested on other crops like corn, rice, wheat and tomatoes.