Climate change is undoubtedly one of the greatest threats facing both plants and animals alike. With rising temperatures and irregular weather patterns, droughts have become a far too normal occurrence worldwide. These harsh conditions have proven to be difficult on the survival of agriculture, and scientists all over the world have been searching for a solution to this problem.
As genetic engineering becomes more and more developed, scientists have turned to the possibility of editing the genomes of plants to enable them to withstand extreme droughts; however, genetically modified organisms have recently been the subject of much controversy and debate. But a research team at the RIKEN Center for Sustainable Resource Science in Japan has discovered a natural, inexpensive hope for plant survival in the time of drought: Vinegar. Vinegar is typically used as an effective pesticide, weed-killer and household cleaner, but in diluted quantities might actually provide plants with drought-resistant durability.
In a study led by Research Scientists Motoaki Seki and Jong-Myong Kim, it was found that treating plants with acetate, the main component in vinegar, can actually improve a plant’s survival in a drought. The research team at RIKEN studied the Arabidopsis, which is a small flowering plant that belongs to the mustard plant family (related to cabbage, kale and radishes).
Arabidopsis itself is not used directly in agriculture, but serves as a model organism for plant and crop research. This plant possesses a naturally-occurring mutation to the enzyme HDA6 (histone deacetylase 6). Histone deacetylases are enzymes that help regulate gene expression by removing acetyl groups from histones, which allow histones to wrap DNA more tightly. These epigenetic enzymes play a crucial role in histone modifications. In the Arabidopsis, HDA6 acts as an epigenetic ON/OFF switch between two energy-producing pathways that it uses to survive.
Under normal growing conditions, plants break down glucose to provide energy, but when exposed to drought conditions, plants have the ability to switch to the epigenetically regulated acetate-producing pathway, which utilizes acetate production and conversion for energy. The mutation to the HDA6 enzyme allows the plant to activate the acetate pathway even more, which leads to an increase in acetate production.
The researchers measured the normal level of acetate produced by a normal plant and it was discovered that higher acetate production led to an increased chance of drought survival. To further investigate this finding, the team conducted their research under drought conditions on plants treated with vinegar, other acids, and water.
After 14 days, 70% of all plants treated with vinegar had survived, and nearly all other plants did not. The scientists also discovered other plant species share this pathway, particularly crops like corn, rice and wheat. They repeated the experiment in these crops and found that the crops treated with vinegar showed an increase in drought tolerance as well, which was an important finding according to Kim.
“Although transgenic technologies can be used to create plants that are more tolerant to drought, we must also develop simple and less expensive technologies because genetically modified plants are not available in all countries,” Kim said.
Should this discovery come to fruition in these major crops on a larger scale, treating plants with vinegar could be the new norm and may even provide a less expensive, simple alternative to gene editing. Of course, other considerations such as the potential epigenetic impact a highly acidic substance might have on other biological processes of the plant must be tested. Although further research is needed, this study provides a step in the right direction toward adapting agriculture to be more stable in a world of environmental change.
Source: Kim J.M., To K.T., et al. (2017) Acetate-mediated novel survival strategy against drought in plants. Nature Plants. doi: 10.1038/nplants.2017.97.
Reference RIKEN CSRS. Vinegar: a cheap and simple way to help plants fight drought. RIKEN Press Release. 27 June 2017. Web.