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Scientists have developed and patented a method to activate drought resistance in plants

Scientists at the Institute of Molecular and Cellular Biology of Plants (CSIC-UPV) and the Rocasolano Institute of Physical Chemistry (CSIC) have managed to stimulate plant resistance to drought by modifying a molecular plant’s receptor, which is activated by a mimetic molecule. The results have been patented.

Plants treated with iSB09, on the right, withstand up to 16 days of drought and recover when watered again / Image by Lozano-Juste et. al. Sci. Adv. 9, 2023.

Scientists from the Institute of Molecular and Cellular Biology of Plants (IBMCP), a joint centre of the CSIC and the Polytechnic University of Valencia (UPV), and the Institute of Physical Chemistry Rocasolano (IQFR), also of the CSIC, have developed  a ‘drug’ to activate the resistance of crop plants to drought.

It is a mechanism for activating the signalling of the plant hormone abscisic acid at will. The researchers have applied biomedical techniques to agricultural biotechnology, which has led to a patent. The results are published in Science Advances.

Abscisic acid (known as ABA) is a plant hormone with important functions in plant physiology. It is involved in developmental and growth processes, as well as in the adaptive response to stress. The activation of this phytohormone can favour the adaptation of plants to stress situations caused by water deficit.

In this project, the teams led by Pedro Luis Rodríguez at the IBMCP in Valencia and Armando Albert at the IQFR in Madrid, have developed a genetic-chemical method to activate this pathway in an inducible way and without damaging plant growth.

A modified receptor and an activating mimetic molecule

Taking as a basis the atomic structure of the proteins involved and using genetic engineering techniques, CSIC researchers have created a modified ABA receptor that is activated by a mimetic molecule called iSB09.

The results of the study show that plants carrying this modified receptor and treated with iSB09 show high tolerance to drought. "This combination efficiently activates the ABA pathway and generates protection by triggering the plant's adaptive mechanisms," says Pedro Luis Rodríguez, from the IBMCP (CSIC-UPV). "Also, iSB09 molecule reduces water loss by transpiration in tomato plants," he adds.

"This is the first time that an ABA receptor has been modified in crop plants to adapt it to a molecule that mimics the phytohormone," says Armando Albert, a researcher at the IQFR-CSIC. "This molecule - iSB09 - is more persistent than the ABA hormone itself, which has a short half-life, and can be added at the right time to protect the plant in drought situations," he explains.

Developing anti-drought drugs

According to the study, this combination makes it possible to reduce the dose of agrochemicals used on crop plants, because the combination with the modified receptor enhances the effect of the molecule. "Our aim is to improve the plants' resistance to drought and even, in extreme cases, to allow them to survive until irrigation is restored," says Rodríguez. "The aim is to develop drugs against drought by applying the advanced molecular knowledge developed in the plant world," he stresses.

For this work, the CSIC researchers have used strategies previously applied in the field of biomedicine (known as 'drug discovery'), but in this case transferred to agricultural biotechnology. The method has been protected by a patent jointly owned by the CSIC and the Polytechnic University of Valencia (UPV), as the Institute of Molecular and Cellular Biology of Plants is a CSIC and UPV joint centre.

As the researchers explain, "the iSB09 molecule will have to undergo food safety studies like any other agrochemical, which will be carried out by the company that exploits the molecule. On the other hand, the introduction of the modified receptor, like any genetic modification, is pending European legislation changes, such as the acceptance of the CRISPR technique in agricultural biotechnology. But companies can use this approach in other countries where the latter is allowed.



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