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If Plants Could Talk

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Media Relations
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

What if plants could tell farmers how they are doing?

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) scientists Dr. Bernie Zebarth and Dr. Helen Tai at the Potato Research Centre in Fredericton, New Brunswick, gather data from plants almost the same way a mechanic assesses your car’s engine.

"We’d like to take small discs of leaf tissue, conduct a simple test and see how this plant is doing in terms of nutrients. We may also be able to see if there are any other stresses the plant is facing, such as diseases, all in a single assay."

Dr. Bernie Zebarth, Soil Scientist, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Fredericton, New Brunswick

The researchers are looking at using 'plant gene expression' as an indicator of how the plant is behaving and what it is sensing in the environment. Like humans, plants have Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) which is the library of their genetic material. However, not all the genes are turned on all the time. Stress genes are only turned on when a plant experiences nutrient deficiency, disease, cold temperature or drought, for example. The active genes are copied into Ribonucleic acid (RNA) in a process called gene expression. At the molecular level, RNA plays a central role in the pathway from DNA to proteins, which are the workhorse of the plant cell carrying out critical biological functions.

"Which genes are copied into the RNA and the number of RNA copies together serve as an indicator of what kind of stress a plant is experiencing. And that is what we are targeting," explained Dr. Tai.

The focus is on nitrogen requirements of potato plants.

"We have found genes that are very closely related to the nitrogen status of the plant and we’ve tested them. So far gene expression is as good as or better than the chemical and optical tests currently being used. Now we are expanding our research into the plant’s phosphorus and potassium status," said Dr. Zebarth.

Dr. Tai is also working on a gene expression indicator for tubers that can guide the use of cold temperatures in storage.

"There may be something we can detect in the potato leaves during the growing season that would tell us about the starches and sugars inside the potato tuber which are important in controlling potato quality and storage characteristics," added Dr. Zebarth.

This type of plant analysis has to be done in the laboratory but the researchers believe there is potential to evolve the new technology further and create handheld devices for use in the field.

"It would be a good problem-solving tool for growers," explained Dr. Zebarth. "They may be able to change their farm management practices in the growing season and improve yield or save the crop."

There would also be benefits for the environment, according to Dr. Tai.

"By more effectively matching crop inputs with plant needs, producers could get more from their investment and help mitigate the losses that contribute to environmental concerns, such as leaching of fertilizers into the water supply."


Photo Gallery

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Testing leaf samples in the lab to detect stresses like nutrient deficiency
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Field of potato plants
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Diagnosing plant health right in the field may soon be a reality

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