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Chemistry Unlocks the Key to How Wildflowers Beat Wildfires

female research student wearing safety google and blue latex glove. She is holding a flask sample of a solution she's purfied

In the lab, researcher Jia Lu separates and tests the components of a karrikin solution, giving her insight into how to improve the process (Christina Olivas photo).

By Amanda Holst, Public Affairs Assistant

Did you know that there are certain plants that grow more abundantly or only after a fire?

Deer Weed, Ithuriel’s Spear and Whispering Bells are examples of what Department of Chemistry Professor Daniel Straus calls “fire-followers.”

“These plants can lay dormant in the soil for 100 years, but after an intense fire, chemicals soak the soil and germinate seeds, causing them to grow,” Straus explained.

Straus studies compounds that affect the germination of geophytes, bulb plants that adapt to unfavorable climates and conditions, even blazing hot wildfires.

Professor Straus is specifically interested in reproducing the highly active germination stimulant karrikin, a molecule discovered in Australia less than 10 years ago and produced amid the smoke and water of wildfires.

“It can take up to two months to purify,” said researcher Jia Lu, ’11 forensic science. “So far I can make only a couple of milligrams because there are so many steps, but the process is getting better.”

Whispering Bells are among the wildflowers resilient after wildfires (californiachaparral.com photo).

Whispering Bells are entirely fire dependent (californiachaparral.com photo)

Learning From “Fire-Followers”

Field studies on how the reproduced karakin compound affects germination have been conducted at Henry W. Coe State Park. Modifying the process to make more karakin faster raises a new question: Would the substance have the same effect on vegetative plants, such as crop plants?

Straus is currently working with the Carnegie Institute for Science’s Department of Global Ecology on a first batch of tests focusing on flowering responses in bulb plants.

“So far there is a very strong vegetative response,” Straus said. “We’re noticing plants watered with the karrikin solution were growing very vigorously in comparison to the plants not watered with karrikin. That’s exciting, and worth trying on other kinds of plants.”