Humankind has benefited time and time again from chance insights made during scientific research. Among the multitude of accidental discoveries are: champagne, crazy-glue, Post-it® notes, LSD, and penicillin. Just think how much less fun life would be without champagne and penicillin! Today I will share a story with you that will help your hydroponic garden…and you guessed it, it is a discovery that was made by accident.
In a research laboratory at a large university a lowly graduate student had the unenviable task of mixing up the nutrient solution for the department’s experiments from scratch. This meant individually adding chemical compounds one at a time to tanks of water to build the fertilizer specifically matched to the particular experiment. Universities often use custom formulated fertilizers to allow for a higher degree of control which also save money by eliminating pre-mixed commercial fertilizers. The student accidentally used MgCl2 (magnesium chloride) when they were supposed to have used MnCl2 (manganese chloride). A few months went by and the majority of the hydroponics systems in the laboratory developed severe Pythium infections.
Pythium is one of the most common pathogens hydroponic growers contend with. It used to be considered a fungus but has more recently been classified as an oomycete (a group of fungus like-organisms.) Pythium can cause severe root rot and poses a huge threat to hydroponic crops. Pythium in its spore stage can move quickly in water and multiply, reeking havoc if left unchecked.
Due to the short duration of the university experiments (about 25 day cycles) the plants did not show visible signs of being deficient in manganese. There was enough manganese from other sources to meet the minimal needs of the plants, but there was roughly a 15% reduction in yield. It was not until later when they discovered the student’s mistake that they made the possible connection between the lack of manganese and the increased occurrence of Pythium infections, which led to experiments designed to verify that manganese had the ability to suppress Pythium.
It is well documented that copper is able to suppress microbial growth; however, copper in elevated amounts is toxic to plants. To this point, manganese had not been examined to see if it too had any antimicrobial characteristics. Manganese is an active ingredient in the well known commercial fungicide Dithane®. So it was not a stretch when their research went on to reveal that manganese and zinc (as it turns out) demonstrated some level of microbial inhibition. Unlike copper, slightly elevated levels of manganese and zinc in your hydroponic solution are not going to cause phytotoxicity, but they may prevent a costly attack of Pythium.
The moral of the story is that there are happy accidents in science and all we have to do is learn from them! So add some extra zinc and manganese to your reservoir, sit back and sip some champagne. You can rest easier knowing you have added a level of protection to your hydroponic garden (and you didn’t even need to use penicillin)!