Forest fires raged across the American West this past summer, and it was the second-worst fire season in Alaska’s history. By next spring, however, the charred landscape is guaranteed to be green once again, aided by natural chemicals that activate seeds from latency and spur plant growth after the flames have passed. Scientists have finally isolated the compound responsible for this miracle of nature, which could aid the recovery of damaged lands and eventually lead to bigger farm yields.
An important clue turned up in 1989, when South African researchers discovered that smoke rouses seeds of fire-dependent plants from dormancy. It took another 13 years for researchers from the University of Western Australia and Ph.D. student Gavin Flematti to pin down which part of smoke gives the signal. The compound, called gavinone in honor of its codiscoverer, is produced when cellulose, the sugar that makes up the cell walls of all plants, burns.
“We are potentially looking at a very fundamental agent for the action of fire in the world’s plants,” says plant biologist Kingsley Dixon, also of the University of Western Australia, who helped isolate the molecule. “There are potential benefits in agriculture, weed control, and conservation.” Gavinone is so potent that concentrations as scant as parts per trillion can germinate not just the seeds of fire-responsive plants but those of many others as well—including crops that are tough to grow from seed. Dixon is now puzzling out the molecule’s modus operandi. “We are also looking at using the chemical to restore mining areas, to restore and manage endangered plant species, and to improve the horticulture of native plants,” he says. “The really interesting science is just beginning.”