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Strange properties of the tequila plant studied by Mexican student


Tequila is the national drink of Mexico and is also hugely popular worldwide. Now a Mexican student has come to England to study the unusual properties of tequila plants.

Postgraduate student Ivan Saldana Oyarzabal, from Guadalajara, which is 50km from the town of Tequila, is studying Agave tequilana and its unusual behaviour at the University of Sussex.

“These agave plants grow in extreme environments and they have a very particular behaviour,” says Ivan. “They are important plants economically and culturally, but their molecular biology has not been investigated that much in the past.”

Past research has mainly concentrated on the agave plants’ chemical and industrial properties, for example how to produce alcohol from them and how to use the waste products from tequila production.

Unlike 90% of all other plants, Agave tequilana closes its pores in the heat of the day to reduce water loss and opens them at night to take in the carbon dioxide it needs. This is known as Crassulacean Acid Metabolism (CAM) – an evolutionary adaptation to hot and dry regions where water conservation is vital.

The Toltex Indians discovered tequila as a drink more than 200 years ago. Agave plants thrive in Mexico where conditions such as altitude and climate are perfect for their growth. It takes the agave plant 8 to 10 years to mature and be ready for harvesting and distilling.

“Almost all agave plants are clones because they are never allowed to develop seeds. This makes them vulnerable to parasites and diseases,” says Ivan. “Normally they never flower as the maximum amount of sugar in the plants is just before they flower.”

Eighteen agave plants have been shipped over from Mexico for this project. Ivan’s research is funded by the Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología (the Mexican Council for Science and Technology).

Peter Simmons | alfa
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