Melon Murder

Linda Jewell
23 January 2012

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.

Learn More!

Hormones and their effects

References:

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

Linda Jewell

For my BSc, I studied biopharmaceutical sciences with a concentration in medicinal chemistry at the University of Ottawa, and I completed an honours project investigating the role of a particular group of receptors during early development in zebrafish! For my MSc, also at the U of O, I extracted and made synthetic mimics of chemical compounds from plants. My PhD research centered around two very closely related fungi that cause plant disease. Right now I am in Sapporo, Japan, working as a postdoctoral fellow and continuing some work with this low-temperature fungus to try to improve our understanding of how this fungus interacts with its plant victims.

My research interests are all over the map because science is fascinating, and I feel very lucky that I have been able to explore so many different areas!

When I'm not in the lab, I like reading, knitting, playing video games, running, and snowboarding.


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