Fluorescent Potato Could Reduce Water Use

ByABC News
December 20, 2000, 3:22 PM

Dec. 22 -- In a field full of potatoes, a farmer bends down and holds a black light to the leaf of a marked plant. The leaf takes on a distinctive hue: It glows fluorescent green. The farmer knows a glowing potato is a thirsty potato.

A fluorescent green potato plant may seem like a biotechnology nightmare come true, but scientists claim it could save agricultural costs and tackle dire water shortage problems in the future. Rather than relying on uncertain soil tests and weather forecasts to gauge when their crops need water, farmers instead could read the fluorescence of the specially engineered potatoes.

The innovation holds potential to influence a very important resource since potatoes are one of five major crops that feed three-quarters of the worlds population. And growing potatoes requires an even more vital resource water.

Using a Jellyfish Gene to Conserve Water

There have been signals that by 2050, water could be the most expensive agricultural product in the world, says Anthony Trewavas, a biologist at Cambridge University in Cambridge, England. So if you can provide a device that signals when a farmers crop needs water, not when he supposes it needs water, then you can save money.

Trewavas and his colleagues created the unusual potato plant by borrowing a gene from an animal that glows green naturally the luminous jellyfish, aequorea victoria. The team spliced the gene into the potato so when the plant first senses its in need of water, it triggers a process to begin conserving water as well as the inserted process that makes it glow green.

When exposed to black light, Trewavas explains, the dehydrated plant glows like a white shirt in a disco. The plant is expected to be ready for the field in about five to 10 years. Trewavas envisions that farmers could plant the crop in strategic locations throughout their fields as signal crops. The engineered potatoes would then be removed before normal potatoes are harvested for eating.