After 14 days without water, only the plants treated with vinegar survived. NIKEN
Lack of water is becoming an increasing concern both for human and plant life throughout the world. Now comes the news that scientists in Japan have discovered that ‘watering’ plants with vinegar can help them survive longer under 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 that showed huge promise for thirsty plants of the future. Researchers revealed that they had stumbled upon a new biological pathway in certain species that sprang into action in times of water stress. By studying the pathway and the chain of chemical reactions within it, the scientists made the surprising discovery that they could induce greater drought tolerance in certain plants simply by growing them 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.
The study began with a collaborative effort to understand the plant Arabidopsis (thale cress.) A relative of cabbage and mustard, this genus of small flowering plants was the first species to have its entire genome sequenced and is considered a model organism for studying plant biology. Arabidopsis is known for its strong drought tolerance due to a mutation to an enzyme called HDA6 (histone desacetylase6). This 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, which is the main component of vinegar. The HDA6 enzyme acts as a switch, controlling which type of metabolic pathway 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 percent of the plants treated with acetic acid were still living. And 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 the Arabidopsis, the team discovered that there was a direct correlation between the amount of acetate the plants produced and how well they performed under drought conditions. And even more exciting, the team carried out the same experiment on rice, wheat and maize and found that these species’ 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.