Seeing the light: Tricking plants into growing

For plants to grow, they need three things: a place to grow and water and sun to nourish them. Without one of these three, the plant could suffer and, eventually, die.

But what if we could change all that? That’s the questions that researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison tried to answer—and the answer could revolutionize the agriculture industry.

Richard Vierstra of the university has been working on such a project for years and recently published his findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science journal. Vierstra and his team have identified and analyzed the molecule that detects light, telling plants when to germinate, grow, make food and flower. The molecule, phytochrome, is a light sensor, and it converts sunlight into energy.

“Plants use the molecule to sense where they are in the canopy,” Vierstra said in a recent article. “They use the phytochromes for color vision—to sense whether they are above, next to or under other plants.”

The phytochrome senses wavelengths of light on plants, and absorb them. Plants that are in the shade receive leftover light from this process. Based on the type of light that the phytochrome senses, it could grow taller, stretch out or flower and make fruit.

This process is critical not only to plants, but to human survival, making it the “most important twitch on this planet,” Vierstra says.

“[Photoconversion] tells plants to become photosynthetic and consequently make the food we eat and the oxygen we breathe,” Vierstra added.

The team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison manipulated the phytochromes to make plants think that they were in full sun, even when they were not. By creating three-dimensional models that were the same structure as the phytochromes, researchers were able to “redesign” the molecule to have altered properties. After several tweaks and variations, Vierstra’s team found several mutations of their creations that were extremely sensitive to light.

This could change how fields look in agriculture. With a growing population, one of the biggest struggles for agriculture is to grow more plants in the same area. This isn’t always possible, as there is a limit to how close plants can be together in order to get adequate sunlight.

A breakthrough like the one Vierstra and his team may have could allow producers to grow plants at a higher density, saving space and resources.

“Instead of 30-inch rows [of corn], this new technology could enable us to plant corn in 20-inch rows, boosting yields by as much as 50%—if we can get plants to ignore their neighbors,” Vierstra said. “It’s exciting to think about the potential this technology has to boost agricultural productivity.”

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