Israeli researchers genetically engineer 'super plants' to last longer, resist drought
Aug. 6, 2013
Scientists from the Faculty of Biology at Technion University in Haifa, north of Israel, have created what they call "super plants" by modifying a longevity hormone in the genes known as zytokinin.
Their research has been published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, one of the US's leading scientific journals.
"Let's take a staple food, for example rice, when the photosynthesis ends, the rice stops growing, it's a natural process with every plant," said Technion University Biology professor and President of the Kinneret College Simon Gepstein, who led the research. "But by extending the juvenile hormone we have managed to extend the life of the plant, therefore producing more crops."
In plants, aging comes about when zytokinin levels drops, so Technion researchers prevented the breakdown of the juvenile hormone and made it stay higher for a longer period, preventing the aging.
"We not only extended the plant's life and managed to make it yield more, but we have also extended the shelf life of the vegetables and fruits it gives," Gepstein said.
"The vegetables and fruits now last double and sometimes three times more after they are cut if they come from the genetically modified plants. I took a modified lettuce home and it took 21 days for it to start getting brown, whereas normal lettuces go bad in five or six days," he said.
Gepstein believes that the super plants can be the solution for the food shortage in the world, not only because his plants live longer and give more vegetables that can last more on the shelf, but also because they hardly need any water.
"These plants can survive droughts, they can go on for a month without water and even if you water them, they only need 30 percent the amount of liquid normal plants do," he said.
Gepstein discovered this feature of his genetically modified plants by sheer chance, when he forgot to water them for a few weeks.
"We found out that after a month of not getting any water they were as good as when they do get it, so we could take their seeds to arid zones or areas where there is severe drought risks and feed the population with them," the researcher said.
His team is now exploring other possible features these "super plants" may have, like their resilience to pests and parasites and heat as well as cold.
"Despite all the bad the word 'genetically modified' has, I can tell our plants are not dangerous for human health, because we have altered them using their own components, they have nothing added to them," Gepstein said.
Currently, the researcher explained, seed companies from all over the world are running field tests with the seeds to verify that these plants can grow as well outdoors as they did in the greenhouses of Technion University.
"If all goes well, we may be able to see these super plants growing in fields worldwide," Gepstein said.
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