Serendipitous Discovery: Transforming Seedlings into Superior Plants with an Uncommon Chemical Exposure

by Amir Hussein
Ethylene Priming in Plants

Exposing seeds to specific chemicals during their seed stage, a process known as ‘priming,’ can significantly influence their later growth.

A novel finding by researchers reveals that ethylene gas treatment of seeds enhances their growth and resistance to stress. This finding, highlighting improved photosynthesis and carbohydrate generation in plants, represents a potential leap forward in boosting agricultural productivity and resilience to environmental challenges.

Plants, like all organisms, are susceptible to stress, commonly from heat or drought, which can stunt their growth or reduce yield. This poses challenges for agriculture, prompting efforts to genetically engineer more robust plants.

However, plants engineered for higher yields often show reduced stress tolerance due to their energy allocation toward growth over stress defense. Conversely, enhancing stress resilience can lead to diminished growth. This dilemma complicates efforts to elevate agricultural output.

My research has been centered on how the plant hormone ethylene influences plant growth and stress response. In a study published in July 2023, my laboratory made a surprising and promising observation. We discovered that germinating seeds in the dark, a common underground occurrence, respond positively to ethylene exposure, showing increased growth and stress tolerance.

Ethylene: A Key Plant Hormone

Plants, immobilized by nature, cannot evade stressful environmental conditions like heat and drought. They perceive various environmental signals, including light and temperature, influencing their growth, development, and stress management. Ethylene, a critical hormone in this regulatory network, aids plants in adapting to their environment.

First identified over a century ago as a gaseous plant hormone, ethylene is produced by all land plants studied to date. It plays roles beyond growth and stress response, including leaf color changes in autumn and fruit ripening.

Utilizing Ethylene to ‘Prime’ Plants

Our laboratory specializes in understanding how plants and bacteria detect ethylene and its interaction with other hormone pathways in plant development. During our research, we stumbled upon an unexpected discovery.

In an experiment involving seed germination in darkness, we exposed seeds to ethylene gas for several days before removing it. Usually, our experiments would conclude at this stage. However, after collecting data, we moved the seedlings to a light cart, aiming to grow adult plants for future seed harvesting.

A few days later, we observed that the seedlings briefly exposed to ethylene were considerably larger, with more expansive leaves and more intricate root systems, compared to unexposed plants. This accelerated growth persisted throughout their lifespan.

The image compares an ethylene-unprimed plant (left) with an ethylene-primed one (right), both of the same age, from the Binder lab at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

We investigated whether various plant species responded similarly to ethylene exposure during seed germination. Our tests included tomato, cucumber, wheat, and arugula seeds, all of which exhibited enhanced growth.

Remarkably, the brief ethylene exposure also heightened their tolerance to stressors like salt, high temperatures, and low oxygen.

Priming effects refer to long-term growth and stress tolerance enhancements following brief stimulus exposure. This concept, akin to priming a pump for easier and quicker activation, has been explored in various plant growth stages. Seed priming with chemicals and stresses is widely studied for its simplicity and potential agricultural applicability.

Exploring the Mechanisms

Post-experiment, our lab has been deciphering the mechanisms enabling these ethylene-exposed plants to exhibit greater growth and stress tolerance. One hypothesis is that ethylene priming boosts photosynthesis, where plants convert light into sugars.

Our findings indicate a significant rise in carbon fixation, implying a heightened CO₂ intake from the atmosphere.

Corresponding with increased photosynthesis is a surge in plant carbohydrate levels. This includes starch (a plant energy storage molecule) and sugars like sucrose and glucose, crucial for immediate energy. These higher molecule concentrations are linked to amplified growth and improved stress endurance.

Our research suggests that environmental conditions during germination can profoundly and enduringly affect plants, potentially enhancing both their size and stress resilience. Understanding these mechanisms is increasingly vital, with implications for enhancing global crop yields.

Authored by Brad Binder, Professor of Biochemistry & Cellular and Molecular Biology, University of Tennessee.

This article is adapted from an original publication in The Conversation.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Ethylene Priming in Plants

What is the main finding of the research on plant growth?

The research discovered that treating seeds with ethylene gas can significantly enhance their growth and stress tolerance. This breakthrough could lead to improved crop yields and better resilience against environmental stressors.

How does ethylene affect plant growth and stress tolerance?

Ethylene, a plant hormone, has been found to increase both the growth rate and stress tolerance of plants when seeds are exposed to it during germination. This includes improved photosynthesis and carbohydrate production in the plants.

What types of stress can ethylene-treated plants withstand?

Plants exposed to ethylene during seed germination showed increased tolerance to various environmental stresses, including salt stress, high temperatures, and low oxygen conditions.

Can ethylene treatment be applied to different plant species?

Yes, the research found that the positive effects of ethylene treatment on growth and stress tolerance were observed in various plant species, including tomatoes, cucumbers, wheat, and arugula.

What are the long-term effects of ethylene exposure on plants?

The long-term effects include sustained enhanced growth throughout the plant’s life, characterized by larger leaves, more complex root systems, and increased carbohydrate levels, which contribute to improved stress endurance.

More about Ethylene Priming in Plants

  • Ethylene and Plant Growth Research
  • Enhancing Crop Resilience with Ethylene
  • Ethylene in Agricultural Innovation
  • Ethylene’s Role in Photosynthesis and Stress Tolerance
  • Advancements in Ethylene Treatment for Seedlings
  • Ethylene Priming Effects on Different Plant Species

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Tom Wilson December 26, 2023 - 1:12 am

not sure how practical this is for regular farmers though, seems like it needs special equipment and stuff.

Alice Green December 26, 2023 - 1:40 am

great article but some of the scientific terms went over my head, maybe simplify a bit next time?

Mark Johnson December 26, 2023 - 11:22 am

I think the part about the stress tolerance is realy important, especially with climate change and all.

Bob Miller December 26, 2023 - 9:15 pm

good job on the research, but isn’t ethylene also harmful in some ways? just curious.

Karen Davis December 27, 2023 - 12:31 am

loved reading this, its amazing how much we still have to learn about plants and their growth.

Jenny Smith December 27, 2023 - 12:53 am

wow this is super interesting, never thought about ethylene in this way before!


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