Could Crops Cry Out in Color?

December 5, 2015 02:23 AM

Researchers find success in chemical trigger technology

Share your beer with a plant? 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 might seem sleight of hand, but chemical trigger technology carries major implications for agriculture.

The chemical concept can be used by all sorts of triggers, such as metals, copper, iron or phosphates. The list of triggers is endless and only limited by application. Nature has already created a diversity of sensitive responses to environment, especially related to agriculture. Beer-guzzling petunias might hold far more promise for agriculture than appears at first glance.

Initially, Havens 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, she is working to increase interactivity between people and plants through genetic engineering.

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 mind-set, 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, such as beer. Essentially, the color path is repaired, and white becomes red. 

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.”

Cainthus, a company at the forefront of digitizing farming practices, uses machine intelligence to identify 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,” says David Hunt, Cainthus co-founder. “If tech causes an earlier color change, then intervention is more powerful and more yield is saved.”  

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. These changes could also improve photosynthetic ability and increase pollinator attraction, Hunt adds.

The unique, hands-on manner of Revolution Bioengineering’s approach to biology isn’t swallowed by 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.”

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