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Metabolite discovery allows for fast plant growth

The success of the project and its inevitable commercialization could have significant impacts for worldwide crop yields, and its beneficiaries could include environmentalists, farmers, industry in the United States as well as people in some developing nations. An added benefit is the increased sequestration of carbon dioxide, potentially lessening the effects of global warming.

Los Alamos scientist Pat Unkefer's team discovered the plant regulatory system that coordinates these functions." Plants function in a world with abundant carbon, but limited nitrogen," she said. "And they must maintain the proper ratio of carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and sulphur. What we've done is to trick the plants into operating as if they have more nitrogen, and consequently they take up more nitrogen, which is good for farmers because they will need less fertilizer." Unkefer points out that the metabolite is neither a pesticide nor a hormone: It is a metabolic trigger.

Unkefer's team pioneered research into several approaches to stimulate the mechanism in a variety of plants. The approaches include topical application of the metabolite and, more recently, bioengineering of tobacco plants to overproduce it. Plants subjected to either of these approaches grow faster, have greater biomass and contain more protein. Plants that have responded to the topical application include corn, oats, alfalfa, soybeans, lettuce, tomatoes, cantaloupe and cotton. The team has developed an efficient and environmentally friendly chemical synthesis for this metabolite; a patent has recently been allowed for this synthesis. Other patents on the technology are pending. A second approach to increasing the amount of the metabolite in plants has been accomplished through a combination of bioengineering and classical plant breeding. The approach has been demonstrated in tobacco, a "lab mouse" for plant researchers. The researchers identified the critical genes, created engineering plants and then bred for the desired traits. Unlike some new technologies, these approaches do not require adding foreign DNA to plants. The plants' normal processes are used to accomplish these beneficial changes.

"An exciting part of this technology is that we can achieve these beneficial changes in a manner that is more friendly to the environ- ment than many previous biotechnology approaches," Unkefer said. "We hope to continue to study this beneficial, 'green' metabolite and to establish industry partnerships to help make these benefits avail- able to the wider community."

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