ARCHIVED - Versatile plant hormone shows commercial potential

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November 03, 2008— Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

NRC has joined forces with a multinational biosciences firm to develop eco-friendly treatments for controlling a broad range of vital plant functions such as pollination, fruit ripening and the ability to survive stressful environmental conditions. Building on more than two decades of research on abscisic acid (ABA), a powerful plant hormone, researchers at the NRC Plant Biotechnology Institute (NRC-PBI) in Saskatoon are helping Valent BioSciences Corporation (VBC) evaluate potential new plant growth regulator compounds based on its natural ABA product. This hormone is found in all higher plants, so the research partnership could lead to future products for farmers, ornamental plant growers — and even golf courses. "ABA is important for seed development, seed germination, drought tolerance and many other functions," says Dr. Suzanne Abrams, Principal Research Officer at NRC-PBI. Among its roles, this hormone controls the timing of seed germination, triggers the production of colour and flavour compounds in fruit, and helps conserve water by closing the leaf pores, called stomata, which allow water to exit a plant.

"Normally, ABA does its job and then is quickly inactivated by the plant," adds Dr. Abrams. "We have made a chemical derivative that mimics the plant hormone but is not metabolized as quickly. The usual rate of turnover of ABA can be a matter of minutes to hours, depending on the plant and how much it makes. But our analog doesn't 'shut off', so we can keep a signal 'on' for a long time."

After 11 days without water, the control plant (left) is dying while the ABA analog-treated plant (right) remains healthy. Photo courtesy of Valent BioSciences Corp.
After 11 days without water, the control plant (left) is dying while the ABA analog-treated plant (right) remains healthy. Photo courtesy of Valent BioSciences Corp.

Since creating their first ABA analog, the NRC-PBI team has synthesized approximately 850 other analogs. "ABA has only 15 carbon and four oxygen atoms, and we've altered every possible structural feature to try to figure out which parts are important for various functions. We collaborate closely with plant biologists with expertise in hormone biology at NRC-PBI and around the world." says Dr. Abrams. Using a technique called photo affinity labelling, the researchers are identifying proteins that bind to ABA to determine which ones are important for which applications of ABA.

Since 2003, Valent BioSciences Corporation has been working with Dr. Abrams to investigate new ABA-related plant treatments. "At the time, ABA and its analogs had not previously been commercialized, so we thought it would be valuable to profile their biological effects as a way to extend the use of ABA-related technology into new markets," says Dr. Peter Petracek, Manager of Plant Sciences at VBC. "We have a tremendous amount of respect for Sue's work — she is an international leader in ABA research."

Greening the links?

Abscisic acid helps all plants use water more efficiently. Some day, the hormone could be used to reduce lawn watering at golf courses. "In this day and age, where water needs to be conserved, it's a real luxury to keep a golf course green," says Dr. Sue Abrams.

VBC is currently pursuing two potential applications for its natural ABA. First, ABA controls the colouration of fruit during ripening by turning on genes that produce colour compounds. "ABA could be a very useful tool for grape growers who need to enhance the colour of their produce," says Dr. Petracek. Another possibility is to use ABA to reduce water usage in ornamental plants, allowing them to survive longer periods without watering. An ABA analog could provide opportunities to extend the benefits of ABA into this application or other markets where relevant needs exist.

"After ornamental plants are grown in greenhouses, they are often shipped to retail outlets, such as 'big box' stores," he explains. "Right before growers ship their plants, they usually give them a large 'drink' of water. But once the plants reach the store, they may sit there for a long time without getting any more water. By the time a plant starts wilting, it's too late to rescue them and the store will throw them out."

Dr. Petracek adds that if plants wilt before they're sold, the growers are financially responsible — even though they have no control over what happens once the plants leave the greenhouse. "So the use of ABA to prevent plants from wilting may help owners reduce their losses."

"One question we're working on is how much is needed to prevent wilting," says Dr. Petracek. "We want to make sure that the industry puts on the optimal amount to get the optimal effect."

Enquiries: Media relations
National Research Council of Canada

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