Golf-Course Fungicide Could Produce Smaller, Environmentally Friendly Corn Plants
May 16, 2012

Golf-Course Fungicide Could Produce Smaller, Environmentally Friendly Corn Plants

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A fungicide commonly used on golf courses could hold the key to producing miniaturized corn plants which require less water and fertilizer to grow and be more environmentally friendly, a researcher at Purdue University in Indiana has discovered.

Burkhard Schulz, an assistant professor of plant biochemical and molecular genetics at the school, had previously observed that using a chemical known as brassinazole to inhibit a corn plant's steroid biosynthesis would result in tiny versions of the plant that had only female characteristics, the university said in a prepared statement.

The shorter plants produce the same amount of corn as their larger counterparts while requiring less water, fertilizer and pesticides to maintain, thus reducing their "environmental footprint," the university said. By using chemicals to remove the male portion of the plants, known as tassels, it could also save a lot of work for those who must mechanically remove them, a process Purdue researchers describe as "labor-intensive."

There is a problem, though. One gram of brassinazole costs upwards of a reported $25,000. So Schulz went looking for a more affordable alternative and discovered propiconazole, a substance used to treat fungal dollar spot disease on golf courses that he says is more powerful than brassinazole, costs just 10 cents per gram, and is harmless to humans, as evidenced by its use on golf courses.

"Any research where you needed to treat large plants for long periods of time would have been impossible," Schulz said. "Those tests before would have cost us millions of dollars. Now, they cost us $25. This will open up research in crops that was not possible before."

"We can change the architecture of a plant the same way that has been done through breeding," he added. "We can treat plants with this substance throughout the plant's life and it will never be able to produce steroids“¦ This could significantly reduce costs for golf courses. If you could eliminate one cutting per week even, it would be considerable because there are so many golf courses."

The professor's work was funded by a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant and has been published in the journal PLoS One. He was assisted in his work by researchers at Seoul National University in South Korea, and according to the university, he now plans to test propiconazole on other types of crops to see if the results will be similar.