Scientists Create Genetically Engineered Plant That Can Change Color When Exposed To Toxic Chemicals

In Education

Researchers at the University of California, Riverside have created a plant that changes color from green to beet red when exposed to a banned toxic pesticide. Although the research is in its preliminary phase, it holds promise for the development of plants that can alert humans to the presence of pollutants and pesticides in their environment.

Researchers develop environmental sensor not affecting the plant

Creating this new color-changing plant was a complex challenge. The UC Riverside team had to figure out how to make the plant detect and respond to a chemical in the environment without harming its normal functions.

According to Ian Wheeldon, an associate professor at UCR, they have developed an environmental sensor that does not alter the plant’s natural metabolism. Unlike previous biosensors that disrupted plant functions like growth towards light and water usage under stress, this new sensor avoids such issues.

The innovative chemistry and engineering process started with abscisic acid (ABA), a protein that aids plants in adapting to environmental stress. For instance, during drought conditions, many plants produce ABA. Receptor proteins help the plant detect and react to ABA, signaling it to close its leaf and stem pores to reduce water loss and prevent wilting.

ABA receptor proteins can be modified to bind pesticides

In 2022, researchers showed that ABA receptor proteins could be adapted to bind to chemicals other than ABA. They found that when these receptors bind to a different chemical, the plant turns beet red. For this experiment, they used azinphos-ethyl, a pesticide known for its human toxicity and banned in many regions.

Sean Cutler, a professor of plant cell biology at UCR, explains that researchers are developing a method to detect environmental chemicals remotely. He suggests that if plants in a field changed color to red, it would provide a clear visual indication.

In the same experiment, researchers demonstrated that yeast can be used as a sensor by showing it can respond to two different chemicals simultaneously. However, this capability has not yet been achieved in plants.

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