The plant that only grows when the going’s good could boost crop yields

photo from light microscope, wheat starch granules stained with iodine (Lugol-reactive) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Scientists have identified a new mutant plant that accumulates excessive amounts of starch, which could help to boost crop yields and increase the productivity of plants grown for biofuels.

Researchers from the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology looked for excessive starch accumulators in the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana that had been mutated using Agrobacterium tumefaciens. In one of the mutant plants, the starch granules were significantly larger compared to the controls. Christened NEX1 (meaning NOVEL STARCH EXCESS 1), the researchers believe that the mutation may have affected an enzyme involved in starch degradation. Alternatively, the starch granules themselves may be abnormal and resistant to being broken down for fuel.

Combining high growth rates with large starch reserves is highly desirable for crops that are used both as silage and to feed humans, such as maize.

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Perennial Corn Crops? It Could Happen with New Plant-Breeding Tool

English: A display of six ears of field corn with dented yellow kernels (Zea mays var. indentata) which won ribbons for "best of show" at the Steele County Fair in Owatonna, Minnesota (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Imagine if you didn’t have to plant seeds for crops – if crops were just like your flowers and your maize just came up year after year”

Since the first plant genome sequence was obtained for the plant Arabidopsis in 2000, scientists have gene-sequenced everything from cannabis to castor bean.

University of Florida scientists were part of a research team that this week unveiled a new tool that will help all plant scientists label (“annotate” in researcher parlance) genes far more quickly and accurately and is expected to give a big boost to traditional and nontraditional plant breeders.

Christopher Henry, a computational biologist at the University of Chicago who had a leading role in creating the database, called PlantSEED, said it is an important step toward the engineering of improved crops, such as creating rice that grows more efficiently or is more drought resistant.

Or creating perennial corn.

“Imagine if you didn’t have to plant seeds for crops – if crops were just like your flowers and your maize just came up year after year,” he said.

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Bionic plants

via MIT

Nanotechnology could turn shrubbery into supercharged energy producers or sensors for explosives.

Plants have many valuable functions: They provide food and fuel, release the oxygen that we breathe, and add beauty to our surroundings. Now, a team of MIT researchers wants to make plants even more useful by augmenting them with nanomaterials that could enhance their energy production and give them completely new functions, such as monitoring environmental pollutants.

In a new Nature Materials paper, the researchers report boosting plants’ ability to capture light energy by 30 percent by embedding carbon nanotubes in the chloroplast, the plant organelle where photosynthesis takes place. Using another type of carbon nanotube, they also modified plants to detect the gas nitric oxide.

Together, these represent the first steps in launching a scientific field the researchers have dubbed “plant nanobionics.”

“Plants are very attractive as a technology platform,” says Michael Strano, the Carbon P. Dubbs Professor of Chemical Engineering and leader of the MIT research team. “They repair themselves, they’re environmentally stable outside, they survive in harsh environments, and they provide their own power source and water distribution.”

Strano and the paper’s lead author, postdoc and plant biologist Juan Pablo Giraldo, envision turning plants into self-powered, photonic devices such as detectors for explosives or chemical weapons. The researchers are also working on incorporating electronic devices into plants. “The potential is really endless,” Strano says.

Supercharged photosynthesis

The idea for nanobionic plants grew out of a project in Strano’s lab to build self-repairing solar cells modeled on plant cells. As a next step, the researchers wanted to try enhancing the photosynthetic function of chloroplasts isolated from plants, for possible use in solar cells.

Chloroplasts host all of the machinery needed for photosynthesis, which occurs in two stages. During the first stage, pigments such as chlorophyll absorb light, which excites electrons that flow through the thylakoid membranes of the chloroplast. The plant captures this electrical energy and uses it to power the second stage of photosynthesis — building sugars.

Chloroplasts can still perform these reactions when removed from plants, but after a few hours, they start to break down because light and oxygen damage the photosynthetic proteins. Usually plants can completely repair this kind of damage, but extracted chloroplasts can’t do it on their own.

To prolong the chloroplasts’ productivity, the researchers embedded them with cerium oxide nanoparticles, also known as nanoceria. These particles are very strong antioxidants that scavenge oxygen radicals and other highly reactive molecules produced by light and oxygen, protecting the chloroplasts from damage.

The researchers delivered nanoceria into the chloroplasts using a new technique they developed called lipid exchange envelope penetration, or LEEP. Wrapping the particles in polyacrylic acid, a highly charged molecule, allows the particles to penetrate the fatty, hydrophobic membranes that surrounds chloroplasts. In these chloroplasts, levels of damaging molecules dropped dramatically.

Using the same delivery technique, the researchers also embedded semiconducting carbon nanotubes, coated in negatively charged DNA, into the chloroplasts. Plants typically make use of only about 10 percent of the sunlight available to them, but carbon nanotubes could act as artificial antennae that allow chloroplasts to capture wavelengths of light not in their normal range, such as ultraviolet, green, and near-infrared.

With carbon nanotubes appearing to act as a “prosthetic photoabsorber,” photosynthetic activity — measured by the rate of electron flow through the thylakoid membranes — was 49 percent greater than that in isolated chloroplasts without embedded nanotubes. When nanoceria and carbon nanotubes were delivered together, the chloroplasts remained active for a few extra hours.

The researchers then turned to living plants and used a technique called vascular infusion to deliver nanoparticles into Arabidopsis thaliana, a small flowering plant. Using this method, the researchers applied a solution of nanoparticles to the underside of the leaf, where it penetrated tiny pores known as stomata, which normally allow carbon dioxide to flow in and oxygen to flow out. In these plants, the nanotubes moved into the chloroplast and boosted photosynthetic electron flow by about 30 percent.

Yet to be discovered is how that extra electron flow influences the plants’ sugar production. “This is a question that we are still trying to answer in the lab: What is the impact of nanoparticles on the production of chemical fuels like glucose?” Giraldo says.

Lean green machines

The researchers also showed that they could turn Arabidopsis thaliana plants into chemical sensors by delivering carbon nanotubes that detect the gas nitric oxide, an environmental pollutant produced by combustion.

Strano’s lab has previously developed carbon nanotube sensors for many different chemicals, including hydrogen peroxide, the explosive TNT, and the nerve gas sarin. When the target molecule binds to a polymer wrapped around the nanotube, it alters the tube’s fluorescence.

“We could someday use these carbon nanotubes to make sensors that detect in real time, at the single-particle level, free radicals or signaling molecules that are at very low-concentration and difficult to detect,” Giraldo says.

“This is a marvelous demonstration of how nanotechnology can be coupled with synthetic biology to modify and enhance the function of living organisms — in this case, plants,” says James Collins, a professor of biomedical engineering at Boston University who was not involved in the research. “The authors nicely show that self-assembling nanoparticles can be used to enhance the photosynthetic capacity of plants, as well as serve as plant-based biosensors and stress reducers.”

By adapting the sensors to different targets, the researchers hope to develop plants that could be used to monitor environmental pollution, pesticides, fungal infections, or exposure to bacterial toxins. They are also working on incorporating electronic nanomaterials, such as graphene, into plants.

“Right now, almost no one is working in this emerging field,” Giraldo says. “It’s an opportunity for people from plant biology and the chemical engineering nanotechnology community to work together in an area that has a large potential.”

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Team converts sugarcane to a cold-tolerant, oil-producing crop

If the researchers achieve their goal, growers will be able to meet 147 percent of the U.S. mandate for renewable fuels by growing the modified sugarcane on abandoned land in the southeastern United States (about 20 percent of the green zone on the map). | Graphic courtesy Stephen P. Long

A multi-institutional team reports that it can increase sugarcane’s geographic range, boost its photosynthetic rate by 30 percent and turn it into an oil-producing crop for biodiesel production.

These are only the first steps in a bigger initiative that will turn sugarcane and sorghum – two of the most productive crop plants known – into even more productive, oil-generating plants.

The team will present its latest findings Tuesday (Feb. 25) at the U.S. Department of Energy’s ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit in Washington, D.C.

“Biodiesel is attractive because, for example, with soybean, once you’ve pressed the oil out it’s fairly easy to convert it to diesel,” said Stephen P. Long, a University of Illinois professor of plant biologyand leader of the initiative. “You could do it in your kitchen.”

But soybean isn’t productive enough to meet the nation’s need for renewable diesel fuels, Long said.

“Sugarcane and sorghum are exceptionally productive plants, and if you could make them accumulate oil in their stems instead of sugar, this would give you much more oil per acre,” he said.

Working first with the laboratory-friendly plant Arabidopsis and later with sugarcane, the team introduced genes that boost natural oil production in the plant. They increased oil production in sugarcane stems to about 1.5 percent.

“That doesn’t sound like a lot, but at 1.5 percent, a sugarcane field in Florida would produce about 50 percent more oil per acre than a soybean field,” Long said. “There’s enough oil to make it worth harvesting.”

The team hopes to increase the oil content of sugarcane stems to about 20 percent, he said.

Using genetic engineering, the researchers increased photosynthetic efficiency in sugarcane and sorghum by 30 percent, Long said. And to boost cold tolerance, researchers are crossing sugarcane with Miscanthus, a related perennial grass that can grow as far north as Canada. The new hybrid is more cold-tolerant than sugarcane, but further crosses are needed to restore the other attributes of sugarcane while preserving its cold-tolerance, Long said.

Ultimately, the team hopes to integrate all of these new attributes into sugarcane, he said.

“Our goal is to make sugarcane produce more oil, be more productive with more photosynthesis and be more cold-tolerant,” he said.

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Breakthrough in drought tolerant crop research

“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.

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