Several farmers in China recently discovered a mystery in their watermelon fields. It looked like someone had planted dynamite among their crops: thousands of watermelons were destroyed before they could be harvested, burst wide open, right in the field. Who could have the heart (or the stomach) to destroy the innocent fruits?
Did you know? All told, about 115 acres of watermelons were totally destroyed in this disaster. That’s enough watermelons to fill over 85 football fields!
A number of news reports have stated that the culprit was not a person, but a chemical: a molecule called forchlorfenuron, which is used to promote the growth of many small fruits like berries and kiwi fruits. The chemical structure of forchlorfenuron is similar to a group of chemicals produced naturally by plants called cytokinins – in fact, it’s so similar that plants respond to this chemical the same way that they do to the cytokinins that they normally produce!
You might have heard of cases of athletes caught using steroids to grow huge muscles to give them an edge over their competitors. Steroids are chemicals that are produced naturally by animals. They are an example of a bigger class of molecules called hormones.
Did you know? Hormones can cause big changes in the way a living thing functions by changing the types or the amounts of other chemicals in the organism.
Hormones are very important in the natural growth processes of all living things, and cytokinins are actually plant hormones that are responsible for controlling many things, including growth.
It’s worth noting here that some news reports are disregarding the claim that forchlorfenuron was the cause of the exploding watermelons. According to certain reports, some of the farmers whose melons exploded did not use the chemical. Agricultural experts investigating the incident were unable to offer an explanation.
If, however, it was the forchlorfenuron that caused the explosion then the chemical worked perfectly: it made the watermelons grow faster and larger than they normally would. But the unfortunate melons were a thin-skinned variety, and the growth of the rind was slower than the growth of the insides. Like an over-filled water balloon, the watermelon skin could only take so much before it split open, sending seeds and pulp flying.
Hormones and their effects
When watermelons attack http://news.nationalpost.com/2011/05/17/when-watermelons-attack-chinese-farmers-caught-off-guard-by-exploding-crop/
Arima, Y.,Shima, K., and Shudo, K. 1995.Evolution of a novel urea-type cytokinin: horticultural uses offorchlorfenuron. Acta horticulturae 394: 75-83. (link to abstract: http://www.actahort.org/books/394/394_6.htm)
Article first published June 1, 2011