Science-- there's something for everyone

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Miniaturizing crops

Given the necessity to provide food for more people with less space (see my post on biodiversity), it makes sense to cultivate more efficient crops. Now there may be a way to do so. 

Like animals, plants produce and respond to a variety of steroidal hormones. One group of these molecules, the brassinoseteroids (BRs), affect many facets of plant growth. By blocking this group of hormones, you can create plants that are much smaller than their ‘wild-type’ or normal cohorts. Such smaller plants would require less water and fertilizer for the same yield.

There are ways to block BRs, but they tend to be very expensive. The typical BR inhibitor is called brassinazole and costs over $20,000 per gram. This is far too expensive for most researchers, let alone farmers. Luckily, Bernard Schulz of Purdue University and his colleagues from Purdue, Stanford and Seoul National University have found a substitute. It turns out that the common fungicide propiconazole (Pcz) will do the same thing for ten cents a gram.

When plants are treated with Pcz they show a dose dependent size reduction. In addition, some plants, such as sorghum and maize, are feminized. That is, they produce only female parts instead of both male and female. This makes it easier to control pollination. By carefully titrating the amount of Pcz given to plants, scientists can control the size and yield of that crop. This could also lead to slow-growing grasses that need much less care and water.

You can see Schulz’s explanation below. As an aside, nice shoes.