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A Glowing Solution

Dr Liew Oi Wah led a group of students from CLS to develop plants that glow when thirsty. We catch up with Dr Liew to find out more about this new phenomenon.

Dr Liew Oi Wah may come across as a lecturer quietly working in Deputy Principal (Academic)'s Office at the Technology Centre for Life Sciences. But get her going about her plants and biological science and you'll find an expert who's passionate about the work she undertakes.

 Transgenic plants emitting green fluoroscence to signal their dehydrated state.

1. What is the practical use of this new plant?

These plants are used as indicators of water deficient conditions. When they are experiencing water stress, they give off green light, which is picked up by an optical sensor. The green signal detected by the sensor is processed by a computer, and we hope that one day we can use this method to control irrigation systems in the field so that water is applied where and when the plants need it.

2. What is the motive behind this research project? Were there any form of cooperation with other organisations?

The primary purpose is to save water during crop production by letting the plants communicate with us when they need water. The genetically modified plants were developed by Singapore Polytechnic while the optical sensor system was developed by Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

3. Is there a name for this new plant?

No, we have not given our plants any novel names yet. Perhaps we will get our students to think of a suitable name for the new plants.

4. What was the biggest problem encountered during the research process? Who would you like to thank most for this project?

The greatest difficulty is screening the plants to look for the one that is most responsive to drought and gives off the highest signal. The person I would most like to thank is my research assistant, Jenny Chong Pek Ching, who did most of the plant work and guided our students throughout this project. I would also like to thank my collaborator, Prof. Anand Asundi and his PhD student Li Bing Qing at NTU, for their expertise in developing the optical component of our sensor system.

5. How long did this research project take?

We started to develop our new plants about one and a half years ago. We think we will need several more years before we can use this technology in the field.

6. How does the plant glow?

We used a modified jelly fish gene called enhanced green fluorescence protein and linked it to a drought-inducible promoter (or plant gene switch) using molecular methods. We then inserted this gene into plant DNA to obtain our genetically modified plants. Thus when these plants are water deficient, the enhanced green fluorescent protein is made in the plant cells. This protein gives off green light when blue light is shone on the plant.

7. Is there a copy of your research journal?

We hope to publish our research in an international scientific journal soon. I will send you a copy of the reprint when I receive it.


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