Micro-naps for plants

A nighttime arrival at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport flies you over the bright pink glow of vegetable production greenhouses. Growing crops under artificial light is gaining momentum, particularly in regions where produce prices can be high during seasons when sunlight is sparse.  The Netherlands is just one country that has rapidly adopted controlled-environment agriculture, where high-value specialty crops like herbs, fancy lettuces and tomatoes are produced in year-round illuminated greenhouses. Advocates suggest these completely enclosed buildings – or plant factories – could be a way to repurpose urban space, decrease food miles and provide local produce to city dwellers.

One of the central problems of this process is the high monetary cost of providing artificial light, usually via a combination of red and blue light-emitting diodes. Energy costs sometimes exceed 25% of the operational outlay. How can growers, particularly in the developing world, compete when the sun is free? Higher energy use also translates to more carbon emissions, rather than the decreased carbon footprint sustainably farmed plants can provide.

An experiment by Kevin M. Folta - "I’ve studied how light affects plant growth and development for over 30 years. I recently found myself wondering: Rather than growing plants under a repeating cycle of one day of light and one night of darkness, what if the same daylight was split into pulses lasting only hours, minutes or seconds?" 

Short bursts of light and dark
So my colleagues and I designed an experiment. We’d apply the normal amount of light in total, just break it up over different chunks of time. Of course, plants depend on light for photosynthesis, the process that in nature uses the sun’s energy to merge carbon dioxide and water into sugars that fuel plant metabolism. Light also directs growth and development through its signals about day and night, and monkeying with that information stream might have disastrous results.

That’s because breaking something good into smaller bits sometimes creates new problems. Imagine how happy you’d be to receive a US$100 bill – but not as thrilled with the equivalent 10,000 pennies. We suspected a plant’s internal clock wouldn’t accept the same luminous currency when broken into smaller denominations. 

Read more at The Conversation (Kevin M. Folta)

 


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