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Double Trouble: Scientists Modify Plant to Grow and Defend at the Same Time

Sep 01, 2016 04:00 AM EDT

Plants have two actions: to grow and to defend itself from threats. Typically, these functions work against each other, but a group of researchers from Michigan State University (MSU) worked to craft a genetic combination that can perform both without compromising either.

According to a report from Science Daily, plants in the natural environment that are exposed to droughts, diseases or predators and insects will often amp up their defenses but proceed to grow much more slowly, if not stop growing altogether. The opposite is true as well; when plants are forced to grow quickly in competitive environments, they tend to slack off on defenses and become more vulnerable to elements.

Best of Both Worlds

The team from MSU, led by plant scientist and MSU Foundation professor of biochemistry and molecular biology Gregg Howe, developed a combination that gets the best of both worlds.

"Normally plants can't do both," Howe explained. "It is generally thought that plants have a fixed energy budget, and they put that energy toward one process at the expense of other processes. There is a tradeoff. But in our plant there's not an energy tradeoff. We've upset that paradigm."

The researchers knocked out a defense hormone repressor and a light receptor in an Arabidopsis plant, modifying it and allowing it to grow quickly and defend itself well simultaneously.

Potential Impact on Food Production, World Hunger

The findings of the team suggest massive potential in agriculture, especially if it can be replicated in crop plants. The global population desperately needs an increase in food production in the next few decades to sustain itself, which would be easier with the application of the MSU research. The new data from the Population Reference Bureau (PRB) revealed that the population could balloon to a whopping 9.9 billion by 2050.

"If we can design better corn plants, you could pack them in and they would be well defended all the time without pesticides - that's one potential direction this research could go," Howe said. "The growth-defense tradeoffs we've observed aren't something found only in Arabidopsis, it's found in all plants. The hormone and light response pathways we've modified are in all the major crops."

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