Vinegar can help plants survive drought

A warming climate brings increased risk of droughts for California and a need for more tools to help plants survive. Scientists at the RIKEN Center for Sustainable Resource Science in Yokohama, Japan, were surprised to learn that maybe a little vinegar can help, according to an article published this summer in Nature Plants.

When studying the response of genetically modified plants to drought, the researchers noticed that some tolerated dry conditions much better. Curiously, these mutants accumulated higher concentrations of acetate, a chemical closely related to vinegar, than the naturally occurring plants.

They decided to see if simply watering unmodified Arabidopsis plants, a small, flowering cabbage relative, with vinegar could also do the trick. Of the plants previously watered with very dilute vinegar, 70 percent survived while almost none of those that were given other acids or only water did. The concentration they used was produced by mixing 40 parts water with one part vinegar.

It was surprising that such a simple compound helped the plants develop a survival strategy against losing water, said Jong-Myong Kim, one of the authors of the study, by email.

The researchers found similar results for other crops including maize, rapeseed, wheat and rice. Based on their previous work, the researchers think the vinegar acts like a signal telling the plant to follow a backup set of genetic instructions to cope with the drought.

Daniel Kliebenstein, a professor of plant sciences at UC Davis, said there’s still a lot to learn about how the response is triggered and the unintended consequences to other processes important to plant health.

The acetate response was also tied to the plants’ use of jasmonic acid. The acid, which gives jasmine flowers their fragrance, is produced by plants as part of its defense against insects and fungus. As a result, different levels of acetate could mess with the plants’ protection against pests and pathogens, he said.

Is it likely that people will spray vinegar across their fields to ward off drought? We don’t know yet, but it could be one tool out of many to keep plants healthy.

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