Breakthrough in drought tolerant crop research

FRESNO, Calif.

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.

UC Riverside has partnered with Syngenta Biotechnology on the research and development project. Cutler said, "As of today it's not ready for prime time."

Regulatory tests must first show quinabactin works on a large scale and is suitable for human consumption. "That's the big divide between let's say a discovery in the lab and a real world product. There are many years that lapse between discovering something and actually proving it's safe."

Cutler didn't set out to change the ag industry but was excited by the compound's potential. He said, "There isn't a product that you can spray in a field to conserve water or improve water use so it's opening up potentially an entirely new approach to managing crops."

Valley farmers said the research conducted at UC Riverside holds great promise. They're hopeful the project someday bears fruit - in the literal sense.

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