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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

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Stoopid Plant Trick Number One

Did you ever eat too much of your favorite food? Remember how sick you felt?

Scientists know about a pea plant that eats so much iron it dies. Understanding why this happens could actually help people get enough iron in their diets. Scientists call this plant "Diggle." Diggle's real name is "dgl". And even this is really a nickname. Dgl stands for--Degenerative (dee-JEN-er-ih-tiv) Leaves.

That's because Diggle's leaves get nasty looking when it overeats iron. Scientists got tired of saying, "There goes old Degenerative Leaves again ...doing its stoopid plant trick!" Diggle is much easier to say.

Now, if you get too greedy for your favorite goodies, your brain and belly will throw on the brakes. You know this as a tummy ache. But Diggle loves iron so much, it just keeps on “eating” it until the bitter end.

In other words, Diggle is a plant that thinks it's a magnet!

What good is a stupid plant trick like this? Actually, it could help kids in other countries stay healthy! At least, that's what Michael Grusak thinks.

Grusak is a plant physiologist (fizzy-ALL-uh-jist), a scientist who studies the life processes in plants. He works at the Children’s Nutrition Research Center in Houston, Texas. The center is run jointly by Baylor College of Medicine and the Agricultural Research Service.

Grusak points out that you'll only find Diggle in a scientific lab--not in a crop field. After all, no sane farmer wants to grow a crop of dead pea plants!

Poor Diggle! It's a mutant. This means the genes in its cells, which tell it what kind of plant to be, are not quite normal. In Diggle’s case, the code is saying, “Get iron from the soil... LOTS of iron... WAY TOO MUCH IRON!"

Genes in cells are a complex set of directions--in the form of chemicals. Plant genes give orders like "Send iron!" or " Make flowers!" or even " Get that bug off me!"

Millions of genes work together as a huge but well-organized team to get all of a plant's work done at the right time and in order.

Grusak is trying to learn more about Diggle’s "iron pig-out" genes. He hopes scientists can someday change these genes a little--and "loan" them to other kinds of plants.

Then, Diggle's iron-loving genes could make these other crop plants take up more iron. Not too much for their own good, but enough to supply iron in larger amounts. People who need more iron could get it from foods made from these improved crops.

Why is iron important, anyway?

If people don’t get enough iron in their blood, they feel run down and weak. This is called anemia, and severe anemia can cause kids to have trouble learning or even walking.

Researchers believe that about 2 billion people have some form of anemia. That’s about one-third of the world's population!

In parts of China, India and Africa, for example, many people don't eat as much iron-rich meat as we do in the United States. Their foods are mostly grains like rice, which is good and healthy, but overall, their diet can be low in iron.

This is where Diggle's special genes might help.

If scientists put Diggle’s iron-craving genes in rice or other low-iron plants, they would also give the genes a special “on-off” switch. The trick is to get these plants to build up more iron in their seeds--the part people eat.

But they also have to be sure the plants don’t overdo it—like poor pea-brained Diggle.

--By Jill Lee, formerly, Agricultural Research Service, Information Staff

Last Modified: 8/12/2016
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