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Could Crops Cry Out in Color?

11:00AM Dec 04, 2015

Share your beer with a plant? Turn up the bottle, give the petunias a good drink, and 24 hours later the flowers show gratitude by changing from white to red. Initially, Keira Havens’ beer-inducible petunias may seem sleight of hand, but chemical trigger technology carries major implications for agriculture.

Alcohol is an eye-catcher, but the chemical concept can be used by all sorts of triggers. Metals, copper, iron, or phosphates -- the list of triggers is endless and only limited by application. Nature has already produced a phenomenal diversity of sensitive responses to environment, especially related to agriculture. Beer-guzzling petunias may hold far more promise for agriculture than appears at first glance.

With a degree in molecular biology, Havens is a science maverick, far removed from the stodgy, laboratory stereotype. From 2005 to 2008, she served as an Air Force missile crew commander in Cheyenne, Wyo., and was the gatekeeper for an ICBM battery. After a four-year stint with a finger on the nuclear button, the military regimen gave way to the deviations of science. She joined a University of Colorado project seeking a rapid color response from plants in the presence of explosives. Currently, as CEO of Colorado-based Revolution Bioengineering, Havens is working to increase interactivity between people and plants through genetic engineering.

Synthetic Bio

Havens’ color-changing petunias are part of the burgeoning field of synthetic biology, where engineering is applied to a living system to create new functions. “We are able to identify a trait in a plant and build it with this method. Taking that mindset, we investigate other traits well beyond color changes,” Havens says.

A white flower lacks a color molecule and the tissue has no pigment. In the chain of reactions needed to make a colored flower, a link is missing. Find the missing step and the flower can be given a good copy of the broken link or gene. The gene can be switched on by a chemical trigger like beer. Essentially, the color path is repaired and white becomes red.

Havens recently began initial testing of ethanol-induced color changes. Could color change or trigger responses be related to crop nutrition or disease? What about connecting color change with crop performance early in a drought? “Yes, and in my opinion, the technical part is less challenging than the accompanying social issues,” Havens says. “We already know flowers can change color when pollinators come by. We’re not so much building nature as tailoring it to fit our needs. Color change could be an early indicator for almost anything.”

Color of Stress?

David Hunt is co-founder of Cainthus, a company at the forefront of digitizing farming practices. Cainthus uses machine intelligence to interpret imagery in identifying health issues in crops and livestock. “Our technology can spot crop stress quite early, but certain stressors like nitrogen deficiency can take some time before physically manifesting. If tech causes an earlier color change, then intervention is more powerful and more yield is saved,” Hunt says.

As with any new technology, discipline must be used to determine relevancy. Stressors with strong, immediate physical tells wouldn’t need chemical triggers, but slow manifesting stressors could be identified earlier using color coordination. Furthermore, crop color changes could potentially improve photosynthetic ability and increase pollinator attraction, Hunt adds.

Discussion surrounding genetic engineering has taken on the mistaken assumption that genetic engineering can only be performed by a massive company and exclusively in an institutional setting. Havens is shaking free from the fallacy. “Right now, the public at large can’t appreciate or interact with genetic engineering. That’s going to change and we need to adjust our expectation of what biotech is for and what can be accomplished.”

Revolution Bioengineering’s unique, hands-on manner approach to biology isn’t swallowed by the gimmick of sci-fi hype. “Flowers are a separate ballgame from crops and they don’t go directly into the food system. We don’t pretend this technology is going to save the world,” Havens notes. “However, this can be an effective tool and used in any manner. In the future, you’ll be able to pick the right tool for the right job.”