Lehman College prof’s accidental discovery makes plants climate-change resilient

*As published in New York Daily News, June 2012*

Hundreds of plants undergo various experiments daily in Professor Eleanore Wurtzel’s laboratory at Lehman College. However, an accidental discovery doesn’t come along too often.

“But it’s nice when it does. It makes life interesting,” said the professor of Biological Sciences, laughing.

Wurtzel and her team of researchers are focused on ending global Vitamin A deficiency by creating healthier foods. The plant protein CruP was tested to aid production of beta-carotene in plants, a nutrient that converts to Vitamin A.

Instead, Wurtzel and her team discovered CruP made the lab plants more resilient to cold temperatures and oxygen deficiency.

“If we want to make plants more nutritious, they have to be resilient to climate change,” she said. “You know how it is, if you don’t water the plant every day the plant will die. Well, we figured out how to make plants that can handle a little bit more abuse.”

The breakthrough is seen as a preventative measure for global warming by postdoctoral associate Dr. Louis Bradbury, a member of Wurtzel’s research team.

“We ended up with these cold-tolerant plants,” said Bradbury. “It was also tolerant to a lack of air, which is something that happens when plants are in flood conditions.

“If we’re thinking global warming, its biggest impact will be its tolerance to flooding.”

Wurtzel said she and her team recently submitted a provisional patent for their discovery and expect a full report of their experiment published this week in Proceedings in the National Academy of Sciences. Her research was funded by the National Institutes of Health.

The next step for Wurtzel’s team is to test CruP’s resistance to climate change on crops like corn and wheat. She is also still focused on Plan A–Vitamin A.

“We have a major challenge to provide food for this planet…still a large part of this planet is malnourished,” she said.

“In terms of food security, being able to grow plants that are more resilient to the stresses that they face will mean there will be more food.”


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