I think it’ll be so nice when agricultural industry becomes more natural so that humanity doesn’t depend on bad chemicals too much. Well, these three new discoveries may lead us to that—hopefully soon.
No more fertilizer because of this protein
Agricultural crops tolerance to climate change can be improved, and the need for chemical fertilizers may be reduced in the future. Researchers have discovered that a protein in plant roots controls the uptake of minerals and water.
Published in Current Biology, the research shows that members of the blue copper proteins family, the Uclacyanins are vital in the formation of Casparian strips. These strips are essential structures that control mineral nutrient and water use efficiencies by forming tight seals between cells in plants, blocking nutrients and water leaking between.
Apparently, this discovery is the first evidence showing the implications of this family in the biosynthesis of lignin, one of the most abundant organic polymers on earth.
The study reveals that the molecular machinery can have a huge impact on plant nutrition, a finding that could help in the development of crops that are efficient in taking in the nutrients they need.
Population growth is going to be problematic in many ways if not taken care of, and one of them is food security. By 2050, crop production must double to keep up with increasing population that happens globally.
That is a target that gets more challenging given the fact that climate change impacts water availability. Therefore, developing crops with improved water and nutrient uptake efficiency would provide a solution.
Guilhem Reyt from the School of Biosciences and Future Food Beacon at the University of Nottingham has led this research project said, “This research is important in revealing the molecular mechanics underpinning efforts to improve mineral nutrient and water use efficiencies and enhanced stress tolerance, making crops more able to withstand flooding, drought, nutrient deficiencies and trace element toxicities,”
“Such improvements in agricultural and horticultural crops could also potentially benefit subsistence farmers with limited access to inorganic fertilizers which include nitrogen, phosphate and potassium and also sulphur and magnesium,”
“This would help to reduce the cost burden such fertilizers impose and reduce the environmental and ecological damage their production and excess use causes. Improved water use efficiency and stress tolerance will also improve yields for subsistence farmers cultivating marginal lands,”
“An improved understanding of how roots acquire important trace element and minerals should provide an important molecular mechanistic underpinning to efforts to improve food quality by helping to increase the content of essential mineral nutrients and reduce toxic trace elements in food crops.”
Reducing insecticide using ant pheromones
We should applaud scientists at the Universities of Bath and Sussex because they’ve developed a new system that slowly releases ant pheromones to attract pests to an insecticide bait. So now, instead of spraying pesticides, traps can be placed in specific areas for more targeted protection.
Targeted protection is needed because conventional pesticides often degrade quickly and are not specific to particular pests, resulting in substantial wastage of pest control products, environmental contamination and harmful effects on other insects.
Where is this pheromone from? It’s from a major pest species of agriculture and forestry in many areas of the tropics that causes an estimated $8 billion damage each year to eucalyptus forestry in Brazil alone: leaf-cutting ants.
A team of chemists and chemical engineers at Bath used molecular sponges called metal-organic frameworks (MOFs), to soak up the alarm pheromones of leaf cutter ants and then slowly release them to attract the insects to a trap.
Not just experiments, the team also used computational modelling to simulate the movement of the pheromone molecule inside the pores of the MOFs to predict which structures would give the optimum capacity and speed of release.
By altering the chemical groups within the basic framework structure, they could adjust the speed of release of the pheromones so that the chemicals could be released over a period of several months rather than days.
University of Sussex team did the field trials in a eucalyptus plantation in Brazil. It showed that the pheromone-loaded MOFs had the desired effect in attracting the ants to a trap.
Professor Andrew Burrows, Head of the Department of Chemistry at the University of Bath who led the study said, “Insect pheromones have been used previously for attracting pests, but the trouble is they are quite volatile, so their effects don’t last very long,”
“Our metal-organic frameworks act as a kind of sponge where the pheromones can be encapsulated in the pores and then released slowly over time. Our proof-of-principle study shows that these materials are effective in delivering the pheromone and that the insects respond normally to it,”
“This system could reduce the amount of pesticides sprayed on a crop and could be particularly useful for high value crops in small areas. We’re currently looking at a range of other insect messenger chemicals including those that can be used to control moth pest species in UK fruit orchards.”
On/off switch for plant growth
Plant protein is so interesting. Above, we see that it can control the uptake of minerals and water, a research from UC Riverside identifies a protein that controls plant growth. Similar to the first one, this can be implemented to crops affected by climate change most.
While looking for clues to the ways plant cells divide or expand, researchers found the protein called IRK in the roots cells of a plant related to mustard.
“When this protein is present, the root perceives a signal that tells cells not to divide. If we can get the plant to ignore those signals, we may be able to get it to grow in conditions where it might not otherwise,” said Jaimie Van Norman, who led the study.
Recently published in Developmental Cell, the research demonstrates that turning off the gene producing IRK causes an increase in the number of times the plant’s root cells divide. More cells can lead to bigger roots, and perhaps to plants that are better at taking up nutrients from the soil and grow larger.
In some cases, people like farmers may want to limit plant growth—plants like weeds—or try to pause crop growth for weather reasons. That can be achieved through IRK. Van Norman said, “This discovery gives us another way to control growth. Understanding how the plant itself stops growth can also allow us to accelerate growth.”
Previous research has examined the role of signals sent between cells up and down the plant from the roots up toward the shoots and vice versa. This study shows communication between cells across the root is important as well.
“There was a longstanding hypothesis that this type of horizontal communication between cells was important, and this work provides new evidence that it is,” said Van Norman.
Next, Van Norman is hoping to understand whether bigger roots survive stress better. Some of the biggest challenges to crops include drought and high levels of salinity in soils.
Salts accumulate in soil both from natural and humanmade sources, such as fertilizers and salts in irrigation waters. Too much salt means there will be a prevention in plant growth or worse, total failure.
Traditionally, farmers over-irrigate their fields to send salts into lower soil depths where they are less harmful to crops. However, some people scrutinize this practice because quantity and quality of water has become scarcer.
“It may be the case that by understanding what happens when the IRK-producing gene is turned off, we can make root growth less sensitive to soil conditions that pose a threat to food security,” Van Norman said.