Pass The Vinegar, I Need To Water My Plants

After 14 days without water, only the plants treated with vinegar survived. NIKEN

Before you wrinkle your nose at this, hear me out, because it’s true. Scientists in Japan have discovered that ‘watering’ plants with vinegar can help them survive longer in drought conditions. I don’t know about you, but I’m reaching for that bottle of white vinegar right now to see if my hydrangeas wouldn’t like a swig.

Last week, scientists at the RIKEN Center for Sustainable Resource Science (CSRS) published the results of a study in Nature Plants that reported they had uncovered a novel way to help plants survive drought. The study revealed that the researchers had stumbled upon a new biological pathway in plants that sprang into action in times of water stress. By further unraveling the pathway and the roles different chemicals played within it, the scientists discovered they could induce greater drought tolerance by growing plants in vinegar.

We all know vinegar’s miraculous properties for cleaning windows and removing stains from carpets, but helping plants cope with drought? Now that is shocking news indeed.

My hydrangea showing signs of water stress 

 

The study began with a collaborative effort to understand the plant Arabidopsis, also known as thale cress. A relative of cabbage and mustard, the genus of small flowering plants is the first plant to have its entire genome sequenced (which makes it one of the model organisms used for studying plant biology.)  Most importantly for the purposes of the study, Arabidopsis has a strong drought tolerance. This is due to a mutation to an enzyme called HDA6 (histone desacetylase6) that allows the plant to grow normally without water for extended periods of time.

Microscopic view of anther of Arabidopsis, also known as thale cress

Initial testing showed that when experiencing drought stress, Arabidopsis uses HDA6 to activate a biological pathway that produces acetate, the main component of vinegar. The HDA6 enzyme acts as a switch, controlling which type of metabolic pathway (sequence of chemical reactions undergone by a compound in a living organism) is active. While normal plants are busy using metabolic pathways to break down sugar for energy, in times of drought, the Arabidopsis plants switch to the acetate-producing pathway.

To find out how this switch works in times of water stress, scientists conducted an experiment. They grew normal plants under drought conditions, treating some with water, some with organic acids and others with acetic acid. After 14 days, 70% of the plants treated with acetic acid were still living while all of the other plants had died.

Microscopic view of stem epidermis of thale cress showing hairs and stomata

By measuring the amounts of acetate in Arabidopsis under stress, the team discovered that there was a direct correlation between the amount of acetate produced during periods of drought and how well the plants survived. And even more exciting, the team carried out the same experiment on rice, wheat and maize and found that their drought tolerance increased as well when grown in optimal acetic acid concentrations.

Close-up of rice plant

The implications of this research are huge. In an increasingly water-stressed future, this discovery might offer a simple, low-cost alternative to genetic engineering. I’m not sure if it will help my hydrangeas battle another scorching Maryland summer, but I’ll let you know.

 

 

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Antoine Jacobsohn, Head of the King’s Kitchen Garden at Versailles

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A suburban meadow can help free you from tiresome yard work

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Bumblebee pollinating mustard plant/ Photo: University of Zurich (UZH)

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Image via Edwin Indira Waskita

There’s a fascinating image that has stuck with me ever since, years ago, I read the sci-fi novel Goodbye and Thanks For All the Fish (the fourth installation in the series the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.) In the novel, author Douglas Adams describes a four-walled house turned inside out. If you entered the house, you found yourself ‘outside’ in a green space, complete with lawn, benches and walking paths. If you exited the house, you found yourself ‘inside’ in a far less desirable place Adams termed the Asylum. Continue reading

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Aren’t they cute?

One of the many things I love about gardening is working alongside my many fuzzy, buzzing friends. Faithfully arriving on the job each morning, they give way in a single mass to hover just next to my hands as I carefully reach down into the garden. Sometimes, I’ve been brave (or stupid) enough to pet one of the downy creatures, and they’ve allowed me to stroke their velvety fur. Feeling the tiny vibrations of all that industrious activity never ceases to amaze me. Continue reading

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“Sometimes the best thing you can do is…. nothing. –Oliver Kellhammer, Ecological Artist 

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Photo tweeted by Astronaut Scott Kelly 1/16/16

Anyone who has seen The Martian will remember the scene where astronaut Mark Watney succeeds in growing potatoes and the joy he experiences in knowing he has learned to cultivate plants to survive. Well, it turns out that crew members aboard the International Space Station (ISS) have been growing plants, too, in an actual ‘space garden’. Now, with its debut of the first-ever flower grown in space, NASA takes a giant leap forward in developing methods that will provide astronauts with a sustainable source of safe food, making the possibility of missions to Mars no longer a dream of the future. Continue reading