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Applying a household acid to plants in drought could help secure food crops

  • Date28 June 2017

New research published in the journal Nature Plants has identified a novel survival strategy that helps protect plants against the effects of drought. By applying acetic acid to plants such as rapeseed, maize, rice and wheat, a metabolic reaction is triggered that makes crops better withstand drought conditions.

A collaboration of researchers from Japan and the UK, including Dr Alessandra Devoto from Royal Holloway, University of London's School of Biological Sciences, have discovered that this chemical, often used in industrial processes, in households as a mild antibacterial agent and as acidity regulator in food condiments (vinegar), mediates a process known as dynamic metabolic flux conversion.

Dr Alessandra Devoto explained, “When plants encounter conditions of drought they are programmed to react in a way that conserves energy for as long as possible, and go into healing mode in order to ride out bad conditions. They vary their metabolisms using a complex network of signal and response, in-built through years of evolution.”

“This new research has helped us to understand how these complex signals are triggered,” continued Dr Jong-Myong Kim, from RIKEN, Centre for Sustainable Research, in Japan. “Perhaps most importantly it has also shown how these plants become more robust in their response through the application of a common acid."

Acid test

Results of drought tests in Arabidopsis show the positive effects of acetic acid (Credit: Dr Jong-Myong Kim)


Securing food for the future

Dr Devoto’s work centres on investigating how plants respond to stress, and how distress signals, such as those released during drought affect their growth. In particular, she works to understand how plant hormones like jasmonates, which help heal plants from damage, affect responses.

Dr Taiko To from the Graduate School of Science, The University of Tokyo says “What is really exciting about this work is that a relatively widely used, and inexpensive chemical – acetic acid – can have such a prominent effect on plants. By triggering energy conservation and healing hormones to kick in more strongly, we can help protect crops from harm in harsh conditions.

“This research has the potential to benefit vital crops from rice to wheat, which feed millions around the world. Climate change is causing worrying water deficits which seriously endanger crops productivity. It is novel research such as this that will help secure food for the future,” Devoto concluded.

The research includes Dr Alessandra Devoto as co-author. She is a Reader in Molecular Plant Biology and Plant Molecular Sciences, and part of Centre for Systems and Synthetic Biology, School of Biological Sciences. The research was conducted by Dr Jong-Myong Kim, Senior Research Scientist and Lead Author on the paper, who is part of the Plant Genomic Network Research Team, led by Dr Motoaki Seki at RIKEN CSRS (Centre for Sustainable Research Science), Yokohama, Japan. 

 Learn more about research in the School of Biological Sciences, and find out how to apply.

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