Science - February 9, 2006

‘Drunk’ potato sprouts quicker

Potatoes react strongly to alcohol fumes, plant physiologists at Wageningen University have discovered. The ‘drunk’ potatoes germinate faster, and it is therefore not very smart to use ethanol for the activation of genes in genetically modified crops.

‘No, this research is not the result of a cocktail party at the lab,’ laughs Dr Dick Vreugdenhil of the Laboratory of Plant Physiology, ‘but it is still a great story.’ The discovery that potatoes sprout very quickly if they come in contact with alcohol comes from research on potato germination. ‘It’s actually thanks to the fact that we have such good AIOs,’ says Vreugdenhil.
In a study on the influence of a hormone on germination, PhD student Margo Claessens decided, just to be sure, to test whether the solvent itself may have a direct effect on germination. ‘This is a control test that many people neglect to perform because they assume that small amounts of alcohol have no influence on plants. This is apparently not the case for potatoes,’ concludes Vreugdenhil.
In the January issue of Trends in Plant Science the researches published a possible complication of this discovery. Vreugdenhil: ‘British researchers want to supply genetically modified plants with an alcohol-induced promoter. This is a type of genetic switch with which you activate certain genes if you spray the plant with alcohol. This idea assumes that non-modified plants are not affected by alcohol fumes. There is thus reason to dispute this, certainly for potatoes.’
The results have stimulated the imaginations of the researchers. ‘The germination effects are already present at low concentrations of alcohol, so it may not be wise to store potatoes in a cabinet next to an open bottle of gin,’ Vreugdenhil warns. / GvM

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