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Photo: Plant physiologist Kay Walker-Simmons examines club wheat heads from the Pacific Northwest for preharvest sprouting damage. Link to photo information

Manipulating Plant Hormone May Help Crops

By Kathryn Barry Stelljes
January 10, 2001

Basic discoveries about the plant hormone abscisic acid could one day help wheat growers prevent crop damage from cold, drought and other environmental stresses.

Researchers with ARS and the National Research Council of Canada have uncovered clues to how the plant hormone works. A certain part of the molecule, they found, regulates whether a wheat seed sprouts. By modifying that region biochemically, the scientists were able to keep the abscisic acid active longer, delaying sprouting damage to wheat.

ARS plant physiologist Kay Simmons also discovered the first protein kinase involved in plant responses to abscisic acid during drought and cold. Breeding plants with more of this protein may aid a crop’s tolerance to adverse conditions. Simmons and colleagues have cloned the genes that control production of this protein kinase. ARS has applied for a patent on their use in conjunction with Washington State University in Pullman, Wash., and Washington University in St. Louis, Mo. (patent application no. 09/427,495).

Simmons’ and colleagues also participate in an international effort to decode the wheat genome. Her team contributes genetic information on wheat seeds with varying levels of abscisic acid.

An article on this research appears in the January issue of Agricultural Research, the agency's monthly magazine.

ARS is the chief scientific research agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Scientific contact: Kay Simmons, National Program Staff, Beltsville, Md., phone (301) 504-5560, fax (301) 504-6191,