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Dwarf plants could reduce demands for water, fertilizer, nutrients and pesticides

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May 16, 2012

Burkhold Schulz examines sorghum treated with the fungicide propiconazole while untreated ...

Burkhold Schulz examines sorghum treated with the fungicide propiconazole while untreated corn in the background rises far above the dwarfed grain plants (Photo: Purdue Agricultural Communication photo/Tom Campbell)

Aside from arable land, most farm crops require significant amounts of water, fertilizer, nutrients and pesticides to grow. While specialized breeding is often used to help produce plants that require less of these inputs, Purdue University researcher Burkhard Schulz has found a way to create tiny versions of plants that suffer no reduction in yield through the addition of a cheap and widely available chemical.

In previous research, Schulz, an assistant professor of plant biochemical and molecular genetics, had found that using the chemical brassinazole to inhibit the steroid function in corn plants resulted in tiny versions that had only female sex characteristics. But at a cost of as much as US$25,000 a gram, the chemical was prohibitively expensive, prompting him to search for a cheaper alternative.

He found a much cheaper option in the form of propiconazole, a fungicide used to treat fungal dollar spot disease on golf courses. Not only does it cost around just 10 cents a gram, but it is also more potent than the much more expensive brassinazole. It is also recognized as a safe chemical for humans with Schulz pointing out that, "they treat golf courses with it. People are around it every day."

Schulz’s previous work adding brassinazole and altering genes to disrupt steroid production produced short, feminized versions of corn plants that developed more kernels where pollen would normally grow. His new findings show that the same results can be achieved using the cheaper and widely available fungicide propiconazole.

"We can change the architecture of a plant the same way that has been done through breeding. We can treat plants with this substance throughout the plant's life and it will never be able to produce steroids," said Schulz. "Any research where you needed to treat large plants for long periods of time would have been impossible. Those tests before would have cost us millions of dollars. Now, they cost us $25. This will open up research in crops that was not possible before."

Aside from the benefits to researchers, Schulz’s approach could also be used to produce shorter plants that not only produce the same amount of grain using less water, fertilizer and nutrients, but are also sturdier against the elements thanks to their reduced height. The technique could also be used to slow grass growth on golf courses, reducing the amount of mowing required and cutting costs.

The findings could also prove significant for seed producers who must usually perform the labor-intensive task of mechanically removing the male portion of the plants so they don’t pollinate themselves.

Schulz and his team are working to determine which genes propiconazole affects and they plans to test if the chemical will also retard steroid production in grain crops other than maize. The team's recent findings were published in the journal PLoS One.

Schulz explains his technique and its benefits in the following video.

Source: Purdue University

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag.   All articles by Darren Quick
10 Comments

Sure safe for golf courses but safe to eat after its been treated with a fungicide?

Rocky Stefano
16th May, 2012 @ 05:32 am PDT

Are you kidding!!? Just because it's safe to walk on WITH SHOES doesn't mean it's safe to apply to a food source. Most of these fungicides are TOXIC, as are most of the chemicals they dump on our foods. Do they do it to protect us? Hell no, they do it to get the most money out of their crops. This is just as bad as GMO's which have been PROVEN to be dangerous to animals & humans.

Steve Alvarez
16th May, 2012 @ 09:27 am PDT

Great! I wonder what will happen to the insects who ingest it, the birds that eat the insects and once the chemical reaches the ocean what will be the effect on the entire ecosystem?

But hey, why worry as long as we can make more money!

Jerry Peavy
16th May, 2012 @ 10:29 am PDT

Relax, guys. Sheesh, what a bunch of alarmist Chicken Littles. If you'd care to do a little Googling, you'd find that propiconazole is not only considered safe, it's been EPA approved since 1987 for use on a range of crops that you already eat. And it's in many non-food products around you.

Next time, don't be so quick to jump to conclusions without knowing anything at all about the subject.

Gadgeteer
16th May, 2012 @ 03:13 pm PDT

This is just another thing to add to the terminator technology, they can manipulate the plant so it doesn't produce any seed so the farmer has to go back to the supplier to buy more, I think this tech should be banned world wide as it will eventually cause mass worldwide starvation when something goes wrong.

Denis Klanac
16th May, 2012 @ 07:35 pm PDT

"Aside from arable land, most farm crops require significant amounts of water, fertilizer, nutrients and pesticides to grow." This is accepted fact worldwide. And it is wrong. If the farmer takes care of the soil (a rare thing due to ignorance), the soil takes care of the crop. No pesticides or chemical fertilizer is needed. All nutrients are provided by the soil. How can that be you ask? Until man tried to farm everything grew without him. Man needs plants, not the other way around. All man has to do is not "mess with" nature. Working with nature to enhance production is not simple or easy, but it is much easier than trying to correct mistakes made by not paying attention to natural processes. For example, there is nothing "natural" about chemical fertilizers, chemical pesticides, and chemical herbicides. All are counter productive. The sellers, government, and scientists who carry on studies for the chemical companies don't agree. Why? There is no money in it. Put another way, they are very short sighted. I do not fault them. I fault the public. It is their responsibility to guard their health. If there is a market for unhealthy substances, it will be supplied. The fault lies with the demand. If misinformation is profitable, it will abound. It is the public that is responsible for finding out the truth. Knowledge is power.

voluntaryist
16th May, 2012 @ 08:35 pm PDT

@Gadgeteer

I for one will not relax. Alarmist? That is exactly what we need to become. It is time to sound the alarm. We been lax long enough. Corporate seed companies and farms are literally killing us slowly... and with FDA and EPA blessings! Just because they approved it does not mean it is safe. We the public have been silent while lobbyists wear down those who were supposed to protect us from this filth. My blood is boiling reading this. Voluntaryist is right, follow the rules nature has set and stop screwing it up for all of us. When will this stop!? It won't until we stand up.

royale455@yahoo.com
17th May, 2012 @ 09:31 am PDT

Gwiles,

You're absolutely right. We're all dying earlier and younger. Except for the steadily increasing life expectancies in developed countries, of course, but why let facts get in the way of a perfectly good paranoid delusion?

Gadgeteer
17th May, 2012 @ 10:00 pm PDT

Gadgeteer: Fact: This generation will be the first to reverse the trend of longer life. Fact: Fruit & Vegies have 40% less nutrition than in 1950. (I would challenge that study as very optimistic considering the average quality in the produce dept.) Also, longer life does not take into account life extending medical procedures developed to mediate and profit from a less healthy diet. (Triple bypass anyone? New heart?) Third world countries with simpler diets and old farming methods (more natural) without pesticides/herbicides/chemical fertilizers have no arterial clogging. It begins with childhood in developed nations. Following natural farming practices is less expensive. less work, and sustainable. It does require re-education which means self education, which means willingness to be open to new ideas and a different approach to the scientific method. For explanation read: "The Natural way of Farming: The Theory and Practice of Green Philosophy" by Masanobu Fukuoka.

voluntaryist
18th May, 2012 @ 02:36 pm PDT

People Get A Grip for Heaven’s sake. Mankind has been modifying both his plants and animals for thousands of years. Anything you eat has been modified from the original material. The older methods of modification were by hand and done by the farmer.

Selective breeding has been done to both animals and plants to get better production and to try and to breed a hardier version of whatever is being modified.

If you don’t like modified material then I suggest you STOP eating altogether. That is the only way you’ll not have to worry about it.

JMOdom
9th June, 2012 @ 08:23 pm PDT
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