February 28, 2008

Scientists Discover Key to Making Plants Thrive in Drought

Scientists in Finland and the United States reported a key breakthrough in the discovery of a gene in plants that controls the amount of carbon dioxide it absorbs. The gene also controls the amount of water vapor a plant releases into the air.

The researchers said they believe the discovery could lead to improvements in crops that would allow them to survive in drought conditions, and could also have implications for climate change regulation and food production.

Plants absorb carbon dioxide from the air, playing an important role in regulating the atmosphere.  They absorb the carbon dioxide through tiny pores on leaves called stomata, and these pores also release water vapor into the air as the plant grows.

In drought or extremely dry conditions, a plant can lose up to 95% of its water through this mechanism.

For years, researchers have been looking for the gene that controls these stomata responses.  What the U.S. and Finnish researchers discovered is the central genetic pathway that controls the opening and closing of these pores.

The researchers believe their discovery could allow them to modify plants so that they continue to absorb carbon dioxide but reduce the amount of water released into the atmosphere, enabling them to prosper in very dry conditions.   Such plants could be commercialized within the next 20 years according to a BBC News report.  

Professor Jakko Kangasjarvi from the University of Helsinki said the research is the first step toward that goal.

"It opens the avenue, it is still several years away but before this publication, there was no single component which would have so many different effects... there was no target to modify, now we know the target," he told BBC News.

While the research team made their discovery in a variety of cress,  they said the underlying genetic mechanisms are the same in many food plants, such as rice.


On the Net:

The report was published in the journal Nature.  An abstract can be viewed here.

University of Helsinki