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."
The Department of Energy's Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time.