RESEARCH REVEALS NATURE’S UNIQUE STRATEGIES FOR REPOPULATING FIRE-RAVAGED ENVIRONMENTS
Ground-breaking research led by Professor Johannes van Staden and UKZN’s Research Centre for Plant Growth and Development may have important ecological implications, resulting in an understanding of the events involved in breaking seed dormancy and promoting seed germination.
In partnership with researchers from the University of Stellenbosch, the University of Copenhagen and the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, the UKZN scientists have identified a highly active plant growth promoter and inhibitor in smoke.
Previous research by the UKZN scientists revealed that smoke plays an intriguing role in promoting the germination of seeds following a fire. The scientists discovered a chemical compound in smoke from burning vegetation that improves germination and seedling vigour, thereby contributing to the rapid re-growth of fire-ravaged environments that occurs after fires.
These kinds of compounds are proposed to be a new and important family of naturally occurring plant growth regulators. They may have important implications for agronomy and horticulture because they are effective at extremely low concentrations.
In their latest research, the scientists discovered another chemical compound from plant-derived smoke that may be responsible for inhibiting the action of the stimulator, thereby hindering germination of seeds. This suggests that both compounds – the stimulator and the inhibitor – could be part of a natural system regulating the re-growth of environments following a fire.
The scientists suggest that this new compound may ensure that seeds remain dormant until conditions are most favourable for germination. In a post-fire environment it is advantageous for seeds to develop only once there is sufficient light, water and moisture. As a result, the inhibitor may delay the germination of seeds until the best conditions are met, and then allow the stimulator to take over and promote germination.
The next step in the research process is to focus on using techniques of molecular biology to study how these compounds interact and affect cellular processes. This will add a further dimension to the understanding of the effect of smoke on seed germination in fire-prone environments.