Now for some “shocking” news about plants: Exposing plants to electricity can boost production of useful plant chemicals and may provide a cheaper, safer, and more efficient method for producing medicines, pesticides, and other commercially important plant-based materials, researchers in Arizona and Oklahoma report.

Researchers have known for years that plants can produce a diverse array of substances as part of their natural response to environmental factors such as microbial infection, sunlight, and chemical exposure. To boost levels of plant chemicals for commercial purposes, scientists have often turned to synthetic chemical additives as well as genetic engineering, which can be expensive and potentially harmful. A better method is needed, scientists say.

In the new study, Hans VanEtten of the University of Arizona (UA), Tucson, Ariz., and his colleagues studied the effects of electricity on the ability of the pea plant to produce pisatin, an antifungal substance. They found that exposing pea plants to certain sub-lethal doses of electric current produced 13 times higher amounts of pisatin than plants that were not exposed to electricity.

The researchers observed similar increases in plant chemicals produced by a variety of other plants when exposed to electricity. There were no adverse effects on the plants.

The article, “Sub-lethal Levels of Electric Current Elicit the Biosynthesis of Plant Secondary Metabolites” is scheduled for the April 4 issue of American Chemical Society's Biotechnology Progress, a bimonthly journal.

VanEtten’s co-authors are Evans Kaimoyo, Catherine Wasmann and Joel L. Cuello of the UA; Lloyd Sumner of the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation in Ardmore, Okla.; and Mohamed Farag, formerly of the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation and now at Cairo University in Egypt. VanEtten and Cuello are members of the UA’s BIO5 Institute.

The research was funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.