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Eureka moments, strange discoveries and super plants

Thanks to an accidental discovery in the laboratory, researchers were able to improve plant growth and give them resistance to drought and salinity conditions, by exposing their seeds to a plant hormone in a simple and easy-to-apply process

Comparison between the plants whose seeds were exposed to ethylene, and the normal plants. source
Comparison between the plants whose seeds were exposed to ethylene, and the normal plants. מקור

95 years ago, one scientist experienced a 'Eureka' moment: a brilliant realization that affected all of humanity. His name was Alexander Fleming, and he noticed fungi invading a culture dish in the laboratory. A vast majority of biology researchers are anxious that fungal spores will enter their laboratories and disrupt the experiments. But Fleming recognized that the fungus damaged the bacteria around it and did not allow them to grow. Fleming did not throw away the contaminated plates. He continued to grow the fungus, studied it and discovered that it secretes a bactericidal substance that he called "penicillin". The same substance soon became the first commercial antibiotic and saved the lives of millions of people all over the world.

All scientists yearn for such a 'eureka' moment, and some of the greatest scientific breakthroughs have seemingly come about because of them. Fleming discovered penicillin in dirty plates. Einstein He came to one of the most important insights in physics - that it is possible to influence the timeline itself - while traveling on a bus and observing the buildings moving away from him quickly. Leo Szilard Realized in a sudden flash how an atomic bomb could be built, a full decade before World War II broke out. 

Popular literature is addicted to eureka moments. They remind the stories of the sudden success of the lottery winners: an ordinary person - each of us! - Finds a dirty plate, and wins the Nobel Prize for the discovery of antibiotics. But such stories present only a narrow section of the scientist's life, and are usually polished and carved over many years to provide inspiration for children who also want to become scientists and reach their eureka moment. We hear about such eureka moments usually only after many decades, during which a long and serious scientific study has become an urban legend that is summed up in one catchy sentence. 

Precisely because of all the myths that surround the eureka moments, I was happy to read about a surprising new discovery from the last year. You will discover that the scientist behind it himself describes it as Eureka at the moment, and since it is so fresh, it is interesting to learn about it. 

Oh, and like penicillin, it may yet save the lives of millions.

A moment of surprise

In Brad Binder's lab at the University of Tennessee, plants are grown. Not a very exciting thing. These are not even plants that you will easily recognize. These are mainly experimental plants that are easy to grow in the laboratory, and therefore do not cause too much trouble for researchers - but they are of no importance to agriculture. If that sounds boring to you, well, don't tell Brad... but you're probably right.

The reason Brad and his friends grow these non-glow plants is that they can learn from them about the way plants germinate, function and grow. The insights and theories obtained from the study of the boring plants are also true in many cases for tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce and other plants that we all know from the fridge and the plate.

In one of the routine experiments in Brad's lab, the researchers took plant seeds and exposed them in the dark to ethylene gas. After exposure for several days, they removed the ethylene from the environment, gathered information about the seeds, and at this point they were supposed to get rid of the seeds and start a new experiment. But one of the researchers decided to keep the seeds and let them germinate and grow into mature plants, in order to produce seeds for future experiments.

Then a strange thing happened. Something that must have happened in thousands of laboratories so far - but no one paid attention to it. Someone in Brad's lab - it is not clear who - noticed that the seeds exposed to ethylene germinated and turned into plants that were larger than their counterparts that were not exposed to the gas. They were taller and had wider and longer tops. As Brad himself describes the discovery in ScienceDaily

"Several days after we put the sprouts in the light, some of the lab members came to the unexpected and shocking diagnosis, that the plants that were momentarily exposed to ethylene were much larger."

That was the real eureka moment. Not a moment of flash or brilliance, but of surprise and curiosity. Brad's lab mates experienced the feeling on her British journalist Gordon Taylor wrote in 1965 – 

Adam has a flash of insight and calls out, "Eureka!" Or, more modestly, a person who notices something that others have ignored and says to himself "this is strange". "

Brad and his colleagues also thought that "this is strange". They did not ignore the unusual phenomenon, but decided to investigate it more deeply. They exposed additional seeds in the dark to ethylene, grew them and carefully monitored them, while comparing them to plants that germinated from seeds that had not undergone the same process. In this way, they discovered that the unusual plants also enjoy a longer and more complicated root system than usual, and that they grow at a faster rate. They were even more resistant to stressful conditions, such as increased salinity and lack of oxygen!

And with a lot more research, they were also able to figure out why. And at this point I'll switch to focus entirely on the discovery from Brad's lab, before returning to summarize its significance for the eureka moments.

Ethylene - the plant hormone

The structure of the ethylene molecule. Illustration:
The structure of the ethylene molecule. Illustration:

Brad - like any biologist - knew very well that plants also have hormones. Hormones, after all, are simply chemicals that send messages to the cells of the body - animal or plant - and cause them to react in certain ways. We react to stressful situations by secreting hormones that tell the body how to act in a way that is more suitable for the new situation. The same thing happens in plants. 

More than a hundred years ago we were able to identify one of the most important plant hormones: ethylene. You know him too, even if you didn't know how to call him by name. If you have ever put ripe bananas together with green bananas in the same bowl, so that the ripe ones encourage the green ones to turn yellow faster, then you have used the ethylene to your advantage. The ripe bananas release large amounts of ethylene gas into the environment, and the green bananas absorb the hormone - and start ripening quickly on their own. This 'trick' is also used by farmers and fruit marketers: they pick fruits such as bananas, tomatoes and peaches before they are ripe, transport them to warehouses while they are still sturdy, tough and resistant to physical damage, and only then expose them to ethylene gas which makes them ripen quickly. The process, if you always wanted to know, is called "Habala". Really nauseating.

Ethylene, then, is involved in fruit ripening. It even has some effect on seed germination. So far everything is good and known. But the discovery from Brad's lab was new: he showed that the plants grown from the same seeds exposed to ethylene in the dark were larger and more robust.

Then he continued to study the same plants, and also understood why. Because that's what real scientists do. They discover something surprising - and then they try to understand what exactly happened there. And this already requires in-depth research and knowledge, thanks to which you can learn from that surprise and connect it to everything we already know.

That's what the researchers in Brad's lab did. They found that exposing the seeds to ethylene led to the mature plants absorbing a greater amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. 

What is meant by carbon dioxide absorption? Well, as part of the photosynthesis process, the plants capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, break it down and reassemble the carbon atoms in the form of building blocks: sugars of all kinds. The exposure to ethylene probably caused the plants to perform photosynthesis at a better rate or efficiency, thus increasing the number of building blocks the plant could extract from the air. Logically, more building blocks are used by the plant to grow better and faster. 

And here is more good news: we all know the phenomenon in which some fruits lose their taste as a result of changes in the growing methods. We would suspect that this would be the case here as well, following the rapid growth of the plants whose seeds were exposed to ethylene. But the truth is different: those plants actually produce more vegetable sugars than their 'raiding' friends. Specifically, there is an almost three-fold (266 percent) increase in glucose levels and a 4.5-fold (446 percent) increase in sucrose/trehalose levels. We enjoy the sweet taste of these sugars in fruits of all kinds, so probably the upgraded fruits will also taste better. 

what fruits After all, I wrote at the beginning that Brad's laboratory grows plants that are not of agricultural importance. This is true, but he realized that it was worth testing the ethylene method on other plants as well. In the study he eventually published, he also included tomatoes, cucumbers and wheat - and showed that all were positively affected by exposing the seeds to ethylene in the dark.

Still not enough? The study also revealed that the same plants are more resistant to harsh environmental conditions, such as increased salinity in the soil, high temperatures and lack of oxygen. So it is possible to guess that these plants will be even more suitable than usual for agriculture. 

Any improvement in agriculture, even a small one, can save - without exaggeration at all - millions of people from hunger in developing countries. And also lower the prices of food in the supermarket. If the discovery from Brad's laboratory is also verified in additional experiments and in other laboratories, then he and his teammates may one day become another story about a "Eureka moment" in children's science books.


Eureka - with care

Before we declare unequivocally about the discovery of the century, it is worth considering that this is still only one study, and it is necessary to confirm the findings from other laboratories. Still, just from the description of the case you can see that the eureka moment here did not come by itself or alone. It came as part of a series of unrelated experiments in which the researchers used ethylene for different purposes. No one would have reached that moment of bewilderment and wonder at the extraordinary plants, if they were not already armed with many years of botanical knowledge, thanks to which they worked in the same laboratory. And even after the moment of bewilderment, they needed the extensive knowledge they had acquired over years of research to decipher Why The plants grew as they did, proving that it was the ethylene that affected the seeds. 

This pattern can be seen throughout the history of eureka moments. Alexander Fleming did not "find stale plates" and discovered penicillin. He researched for many years to find bactericidal substances, and only then was he armed with the knowledge and understanding required to understand that the mold might produce such substances. Leo Szilard did not think out of the blue about the nuclear bomb. He read about the idea in a science fiction book by H.G. Wells, written at the beginning of the century, and considered himself a genius researcher and inventor in the field of physics. Success didn't fall into their lap just like that. 

One of the greatest scientists of the 19th century, Louis Pasteur, wrote in the past that "fortune only smiles on those who are well prepared for its arrival." If there is one characteristic that characterizes the Locks in the eureka moments, it is that they are ready for the luck that comes their way - and then grab it with both hands. 

The team of researchers in Brad's lab would not have known that luck was on their side, had they not been well prepared for it. They had to be attentive to the little clues that led to that famous moment of indolence, and then be willing to spend weeks researching in an unexpected direction that ultimately produced the results they desired. They continued and also tested seeds of tomatoes, cucumbers and wheat, and discovered that ethylene also works there according to the theory they formulated. Then and only then did they allow themselves to publish the The results with great fanfare.

And a new eureka moment was born.

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