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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

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stoopid plant trick #1 gif

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. They call this dummy “Diggle.”

Why "Diggle"?

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!

Diggle the magnetic plant

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). 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!

Click here for a photo--and poem--about Diggle's leaves.

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!"

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.

Alas, Poor Diggle!

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

Diggle links / Back to Top / S4K home Page

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Last Modified: 8/12/2016
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