Featured Lendület Member: Zsuzsanna Kolbert Ördögné

In the near future, agriculture will have to face increasingly severe droughts, so we need to increase productivity in the face of growing stress to provide food for an ever-increasing human population. Zsuzsanna Kolbert Ördögné, Associate Professor at the Department of Plant Biology, University of Szeged and head of the Lendület Plant Nanobiology Research Group, and her colleagues are investigating what role seed priming with nanoagents can play in improving drought tolerance in cultivated plants.

2024. január 10.

In order to maintain the productivity of Hungarian agriculture due to the rising average temperature caused by climate change and decreasing and unpredictable precipitation,

the drought tolerance of cultivated crops must be increased.

Ördögné Kolbert Zsuzsanna

According to Kolbert, during the long drought of 2022, agriculture suffered losses of several hundred billion forints: maize and wheat yields decreased, and the area available for grazing decreased. According to forecasts, this trend will only increase in the near future, so we need to prepare for longer and longer dry periods.

But this is not the only challenge facing modern agriculture. As the world’s population continues to grow, the demand for food is increasing and the need to grow more crops in a worsening environment is growing. Moreover, this increase in production must be in line with the principles of sustainability. “We need to pass on land to our descendants in a quality that they can use for food production. We must find a solution to the triple challenge facing agriculture today,” says Kolbert.

The “seed priming” process can play a significant role in achieving these goals. Seed priming can be achieved with nanomaterials, but many of these have not yet been tested in practice. Part of the aim of the Lendület research group is therefore to test more nanomaterials in seed priming and to develop new materials to improve drought tolerance in plants. But what is seed treatment?

“Seed priming is the special treatment of seeds using different molecules or, for example, the use of liquids containing nanomaterials,” continued the research group leader.

“Plants have an innate ability to defend themselves against drought, and it is possible to activate these defence mechanisms via treatment during the seed age, that is to say, via priming.”

The plant that emerges from the seed is expected to “remember” this training, so that later, when it is subjected to environmental stress (in this case drought stress), it will be able to respond more effectively (faster and more intensively) to this disturbance thanks to its activated defence capabilities. One of the most important basic drought defence mechanisms is the closure of gas stomata, which reduces the evaporation of the plant and improves its water balance despite the drought. But in dry soils, root growth can also be altered to allow roots to reach deeper and therefore wetter soil layers. Drought also triggers the production of plant hormones and antioxidants that stimulate defence. These basic defence mechanisms can be activated and strengthened with seed priming.

The novelty value of this research lies in the use of nanomaterials for seed treatment. Nanomaterials are in the nanometre (one millionth of a millimetre) size range. One of their advantages is that in addition to their small size, they have a large relative surface area, which allows them to exhibit specific behaviour in biological systems and cells. They also have special optical and mechanical properties and antimicrobial effects. The research team is trying to exploit these special properties in seed priming. The studies will test the effects of several treatments. One of these such substances is plasma-activated water enriched with nanomaterials. In this, reactive forms of oxygen and nitrogen are produced by the interaction of water molecules with atmospheric plasma. Previous experiments have shown that treatment with plasma-activated water has improved plant germination and growth, but the oxygen and nitrogen radicals in the water are so reactive that they react quickly and their effects do not last long. It would therefore be worthwhile to increase their stability. Metal nanocolloids may offer a possible solution.

According to the research team leader, nanomaterials can thus be used to turn plasma-activated water into a more effective seed treatment agent.

“So here we want to use nanoagents to improve the positive properties of an already known priming material. In our studies we will also use karrikin, which is produced during the partial combustion of cellulose,” says Kolbert. “The plants will use their receptors to detect the presence of karrikin, which will increase germination and seedling growth and improve their stress tolerance. This effect is already known, but we will package the karrikin in a nanopolymer, chitosan, and hopefully give it all the beneficial properties of nanoagents.”

And the third substance to be used in the tests will be a silica-based nitric oxide donor nanoagent which has already been produced but has not yet been tested in plants. This nanoparticle releases nitric oxide, which is also highly reactive and has a good effect on germination. The tests will be carried out mainly on the thale cress plant model, but will also include greenhouse experiments on peas and wheat.

“We are confident that the project can provide solid and reliable theoretical knowledge for the introduction of new technologies for sustainable agriculture,” said the head of the Lendület research group.