There are constantly new technologies being discovered that can have a positive impact on agricultural production. It seems every week there is something to get excited about when it comes to scientific breakthroughs. One of the big topics of late has been nitrogen-fixing bacteria that isn’t host specific to leguminous plants. The implications of this technology are huge, as nitrogen is often one of the most limiting factors in high yielding agricultural production. But, a limiting factor that is often of bigger concern than nitrogen is moisture. The majority of us cannot control when we receive precipitation, but what we can do is either breed plants for higher water use efficiency, or manipulate the plants with different types of hormones or chemicals. A recent discovery at the University of California Riverside has allowed researchers to mimic a hormone response with a chemical known as quinabactin in soybean and Aribidopsis thaliana (thale cress, known as the “guinea pig plant”).
It has been well documented that the hormone abscisic acid (ABA) plays a key role in the plant by manipulating plant stomata to close which can decrease water lost to transpiration. This means more water for the plant to put into root and shoot growth and eventually yield. What researchers started to do was apply ABA to plants to achieve the resulting stomata closure at will.
But, applying ABA didn’t come without flaws. The first problem is that it is expensive. The economics of applying the hormone simply don’t pencil out when it comes to the majority of crops worldwide, including higher value crops such as those in the horticulture industry. Second, when it comes to hormones, there are always ideal balances in plants; if we start applying them improperly there can be yield losses. Think along the lines of an ill-timed application of 2,4-D and the consequences it can have on a cereal crop — “Kinked-Head Central.”
So, researchers moved on to other compounds, focusing on the ABA-mimicking quinabactin. What this chemical provides first and foremost is an option that is much less expensive to produce than its hormonal counterpart. Next, this synthetic chemical targets some of the same receptors as ABA, giving increased drought tolerance, without toying with hormones within the plant.
While quinabactin is not commercially available (and may not be for a while), there are talks with Syngenta Biotechnology indicating an interest in future commercialization.
I have talked to many farmers who want two things: more nitrogen-fixing crops, and more drought-tolerant crops. In July, announcements from the scientific community have brought these two possibilities much closer to reality.