Tomatoes are certainly hardy plants – this is partly due to a compound which they emit, known as hexenyl butyrate (HB). Spanish scientists have now found that a spray of synthetic HB helps various crop plants to withstand both drought and bacterial infections.
In a natural process called transpiration, water within a plant evaporates through tiny pores known as stomata, which periodically open on the surface of its leaves. At the same time, carbon dioxide from the surrounding air is drawn into the plant, also through those stomata.
Among other things, this exchange is necessary for regulating the process of photosynthesis. That said, a recent study suggested that due to the increased atmospheric carbon dioxide of modern times, plants may no longer need to have their stomata open for as long an amount of time, in order to get all the CO2 they need (a tomato stomata is pictured below).
That's where the HB comes in. The natural form of the compound causes tomato stomata to close, thus keeping water from leaving the plant, and keeping bacteria from entering through the pores.
Scientists from Spain's Institute for Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology created a synthetic form of HB, and then sprayed it onto tomato, corn, alfalfa, citrus and tobacco plants. It was found that the treated plants were able to survive on considerably less water than a control group, plus they were much more resistant to infection by harmful Pseudomonas syringae bacteria.
The compound is reportedly easy and inexpensive to synthesize, it's non-toxic, and it's highly effective, meaning that relatively low doses are needed. And while too much of it could keep plants from maturing – they enter a sort of dormancy if their stomata remain closed for too long – that factor could also be used to farmers' advantage, as they could purposely delay the ripening of crops to coincide with the needs of the market.
"The application of this compound in fields will allow the industry to have a new natural strategy for improving crop yields: treatments will protect crops from biotic and abiotic stress easily, efficiently and at a low cost," says Purificación Lisón, who is part of the research team.
A paper on the study was recently published in the journal Frontiers in Plant Science. The Institute for Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology is a joint center of the Universitat Politècnica de València and the Spanish National Research Council.
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