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The Power of Two

Beauty for Burnt Plants

Published January 22, 2014 3:22 PM by Eleanor Wolfram
Somewhere in the Holy Bible, there is a phase "Beauty for Ashes."  I have always loved this sentence, because it signifies that fresh new thing can be birthed out of destruction.

Agricultural and genetic scientists are talking in similar terms these days when they speak about a specialized a receptor embedded within a seed that binds to smoke molecule called karrikins. The cycle goes something like this: That karrikus smoke molecule senses and binds with the seed protein thereby stimulating new plant grow by a binding action which promotes germination in the charred nutrient-rich ashes of the burned vegetative parents.

References of a farming-related nature reveal that over a decade ago Hannes De Laneg an African researcher thought the abundant growth was due to reduced vegetative which would allow for more access to sunlight, nutrients, and growing space.  He found that smoke could stimulate seeds of fire-sensitive areas. 

About ten years ago researcher Gavin Flematti and colleagues from the University of Western Australia were the first to identify a potent class of smoke compounds-dubbed karrikins after an Aboriginal word for smoke, "karrik."

Years later Flematti and David Nelson, a geneticist at the University of Georgia uncovered and published works on the crystal structure of an ancient enzyme-turned-receptor called KAI2. It seems that  KAI2 binds karrikins.

Finally, Joseph Noel, a biochemist at the Salk Institute puts forth the idea research the smoke sensitivity of pant evolved when plants adapted an already-existing signaling system to respond to karrikins in smoke, in order to take advantage of the nutrient-rich soil and sunny climes left over after fires.

Fleming, Nelson, Noel and others continue to conduct research to gain further insight and applicability of this new found knowledge to agriculture and other disciplines. It will be interesting to see what if any role this area of research will play in the world's food supply to address world hunger. The outcomes data could truly be a beautiful thing.

posted by Eleanor Wolfram

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