Researchers study stress-induced plants

Students study a defense mechanism in plants.

Students study a defense mechanism in plants. Jack Myer/The Paisano

Ryan Houston-Dial

Jurgen Engelberth, associate professor in the department of biology and several undergraduate students studied the effect of stress in plants. Undergraduate students studied plants at different developmental stages and interpreted the data and drew conclusions.
According to Engelberth ‘green leaf volatiles,’ also known as GLV compounds, were found to prime responses to a multitude of threats. GLV compounds protect plants when attacked and warn nearby plants of the threat.
Engelberth described the priming process as “A process in which an organism is better prepared to a threat and will respond faster or stronger should it actually be attacked.”
He explained the goal of the study was to determine if GLV priming comes at a cost to the plants when a herbivorous insect attacks. Researchers treated corn seedling with GLV and measured the effect of treatment in plant growth.
“We simulated herbivory to specifically activate defense mechanisms and to study the priming effects of green leaf volatiles on those responses too. We used corn as our model plant since it is one of the most valuable agricultural plants not only in this country, but also world-wide,” Engelberth said.
Engelberth expressed the researchers’ surprise in finding corn seedlings recovery time after stressors were placed on the plants.
“We were surprised to see that although all treatments by themselves caused a reduction in growth, corn seedling seemed to recover quickly and not only came back to normal growth rates but often even increased their growth rate after the stresses had passed,” Engelberth said.
Additionally, researchers found that while priming may come at some cost, plants are able to rebound after the stress has diminished. Plants are adapting to environmental challenges by changing their physiological structure allowing them to grow when dealing with adversity. However, severe conditions can lead to a loss in various agricultural settings across the world. It is unknown at the moment if climate change correlates with stress in plants.
“More research is therefore necessary to assess the risks for plants caused by elevated CO2 levels and/or increased temperatures. Only then can we start to develop strategies that will help to secure our food supplies,” Engelberth said.
Although there has not been any specific studies conducted on how the stress in plants can impact the human body when eaten, Dr. Engelberth affirmed the notion that it is unlikely humans will experience impact upon indigestion.
“I do however strongly believe that most of these stresses do not affect our body when we consume these plants. Certain stresses may even increase the taste of plants since they cause the production of secondary metabolites, which are mainly responsible for the specific taste of plants that we eat,” Engelworth said.
UTSA researchers plan to continue monitoring stress in plants and understand how we can conserve our food supply.