MIT engineers create seeds with a special coating to resist drought

MIT has developed a new type of coating that is designed to help seeds survive drought conditions. Researchers on the project say that as the world warms, many arid regions where growing crops are already marginal will be under increasing stress for food production. Warming temperatures and reduced yields could lead to serious food shortages in the future.

MIT's process protects seeds from stresses incurred from water shortages during the crucial germination phase and provides plants with additional nutrition at the same time. Researchers are currently testing the seed coating in Morocco, noting that it is simple and inexpensive. Since the special process is cheap and easy to perform, it could be widely deployed in aired regions.

The dual-layer coating is the direct result of years of research by MIT scientists in developing seed coatings that give the seeds various benefits. Previously, the researchers developed a seed coating that helped the seeds deal with high salinity in soil. Researchers say they wanted to make a coating that was specific in helping seeds survive droughts.

The new coating takes inspiration from natural coatings that some seeds, such as chia and basil, have from nature. It protects the seeds from drying out by providing a gel-like coating that holds on to any moisture that it encounters and envelops the seed with it. The inner layer of the coating helps preserve microorganisms called rhizobacteria along with nutrients to help the seeds grow. When the seeds are exposed to soil and water, the microbes fix nitrogen into the soil providing the seed with a nitrogen-enriched fertilizer.

Researchers on the project say their idea was to provide multiple functions with a single seed coating. What they developed targets water jacket and rhizobacteria. Helping the bacteria is particularly important because they are self-replicating microorganisms that fix nitrogen into the soil for plants meaning farmers can reduce the nitrogen-based fertilizers they use. Currently, a field of test seeds has been planted and are undergoing development.