The vinegar way to sustaining water-starved plants

TV Jayan New Delhi | Updated on January 12, 2018


Japanese institute says the kitchen chemical helps crops survive drought

Vinegar, a versatile chemical found in every kitchen, may come to the rescue of plants in the times of drought.

A team of researchers in Japan has found that external application of vinegar, which goes by the chemical name acetic acid, can prepare plants to fight droughts better.

This pathbreaking finding, published in the journal Nature Plants, by Japanese plant biologists on Monday, heralds an easier and less expensive way to impart drought tolerance than genetic modification, the scientists claimed.

Through a series of experiments, the scientists led by Jong-Myong Kim and Motoaki Seki at Japan’s RIKEN Center for Sustainable Resource Science (CSRS) also unravelled biological mechanisms involved.

They found that the acetic acid treatment is very effective in a variety of crops, including rice, wheat, maize and rapeseed.

“This new understanding can apply to save the crops against temporal and sudden drought, and also to prevent desertification,” Kim told BusinessLine from Yokohama in Japan.

Using a plant belonging to the family of mustard and cabbage as a model organism, the Japanese researchers discovered a new biological pathway in the plants that gets activated when a drought-like condition is present.

Typically, in normal conditions, plants, like any other living organism, break down sugar for energy. But in the time of prolonged water scarcity, they switch to a pathway that leads to production of acetate, which is the principal component of vinegar.

This switching of pathways helps the plants to survive in drought-like conditions, Kim said. Their initial studies showed that plants that have higher levels of acetate fared better during drought conditions.

To understand the mechanisms at play, the CSRS scientists knocked off a gene that produces an enzyme called HDA6, which helps a plant to switch between normal metabolic pathway involving sugar and an acetate-producing pathway.

This also helped in identifying two key genes involved in acetate biosynthesis. By introducing mutations in these two genes, they showed that when plants produce lesser acetate they have a lesser chance of surviving a drought.

The team further tested this hypothesis by growing normal plants in drought-like conditions and treating them with acetic acid, other organics acids or water. The CSRS team found that after 14 days, over 70 per cent of the plants treated with acetic acid had survived, while virtually all other plants had died.

The scientists carried out similar experiments in rice, wheat and maize plants and found that optimal acetic acid conditions helped increase their drought tolerance.

“Although transgenic technologies can be used to create plants that are more tolerant to drought…we expect that external application of acetate to plants will be a useful, simple and less expensive way to enhance drought tolerance in a variety of plants,” Kim said.

Published on June 26, 2017

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