A University of California-Riverside plant biologist has discovered a chemical that could forever change the adverse effects of drought in crops, a promising solution to the extreme drought conditions in North America and other parts of the world in recent years that many attribute to climate change.

A research team led by Sean Cutler, a plant cell biologist at UC-Riverside, says the new drought-protecting chemical demonstrates high potential for drastically improving crop yields under extreme weather conditions. The chemical could provide an affordable solution that could be sprayed on crops and could control the amount of moisture released by plants, a control mechanism that could respond to extreme dry conditions as they develop.

The study results, which appear online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, indicate the new science is based upon the ability of plants to sense water needs dictated by extreme weather. Cutler says all plants are capable of drought response by opening and closing tiny pores on their leaves called stomata. These pores open or close dynamically to control the amount of water lost to the environment by evaporation.

To make this system work, Cutler says plants produce abscisic acid, or ABA, a stress hormone that helps them better tolerant drought conditions.  This hormone serves as the trigger for the plant's receptors. As water levels decrease, cells throughout the plant produce increasing amounts of abscisic acid, which signals the plant to stressful conditions, triggering the stomata to close and reduce plant moisture loss.

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The research team working on the new study first discovered ABA receptors in 2009, a discovery Science magazine named as one of the top breakthroughs in plant cell biology of the year.

"We have crops today that perform very well in years of plentiful water but poorly in years with little water. This dilemma has spawned an active hunt for both new drought-tolerant crops and chemicals that farmers might use for improving crop yield under adverse conditions,” Cutler explains in a report about the new study.

While plant cell biologists have known since then that ABA serves as a trigger for better drought tolerance, until now an affordable method of mimicking the hormone has not been available. That led the research team to develop the current breakthrough with the development of the synthetic chemical they are calling quinabactin, a substance that provides the same triggering mechanism as ABA, providing a powerful tool for crop protection in a harsh, drought-driven environment.

For the purpose of the study, the research team used Arabidopsis, a model plant used widely in plant biology labs, to perform tests using the new chemical. The results indicated a positive response, providing researchers the evidence they hoped they would find.

“This is a competitive arena that includes agrichemical giants who are busily working to bring similar drought-protecting molecules to market, so this is a landmark discovery because quinabactin is the first-in-class synthetic molecule of its kind,” Cutler said.

University of California-Riverside officials say given the complexity and costs of the process to develop this new chemical, the UCR Office of Technology Commercialization (OTC) is working with Syngenta Biotechnology to develop the technology and bring it to farmers.

Cutler’s collaborators on the research project are Brian Volkman and Francis Peterson at the Medical College of Wisconsin, who helped unravel the mechanism by which quinabactin mimics ABA.Others who worked on the project include Masanori Okamoto, Andrew Defries and Sang-Youl Park at UCR; and Akira Endo and Eiji Nambara at the University of Toronto, Canada.

 

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