CAPE TOWN, March 7 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Could
harnessing the power of "resurrection plants" - with the ability
to survive severe water shortages for years - hold the secret to
feeding a hungry planet?
Jill Farrant, a biology professor at Cape Town University,
hopes that by putting resurrection plants' survival skills into
crops, making them drought-tolerant, the world's population
could be better fed.
Farrant and her team are currently testing the technique on
maize, but in theory, it could be applied to any crop, she said.
"Give (the plants) water, and they are fully active within
24 to 48 hours," Farrant told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at
Nearly 800 million people go to bed hungry each night,
according to the United Nations, with drought one of the
greatest threats to food production.
In Southern Africa, more than 21 million people need
emergency assistance due to a food crisis after the region's
worst drought in 35 years and an infestation of the
crop-damaging fall armyworm.
Farrant's research has shown that survival mechanisms found
in the 135 varieties of resurrection plants, such as the 'Rose
of Jericho' and 'Siempre Viva' desert plants, are similar to the
desiccation processes found in crop seeds.
During a drought, a resurrection plant behaves like a seed,
drying up and appearing to be dead, but then bursts back to life
when rain finally falls.
"Since all crops produce dry seeds, this implies that the
genetic mechanisms for desiccation tolerance exist in crops,"
The problem is the mechanism is not switched on, she said.
By modifying the existing gene composition, Farrant and her team
could potentially produce drought-tolerant crops.
"By figuring out how they turn on these genes in roots and
leaves, we can enable the same processes in leaves and roots of
crops under drought conditions," Farrant said.
"Most of the genes responsible for desiccation tolerance are
controlled by two master switches," she said, comparing the
mechanisms to an household electronic circuit.
By understanding how these switches are flipped in
vegetative tissues of resurrection plants in response to water
loss, Farrant is investigating how to enable the same reaction
Her first trial crops are maize, beans and an edible grass
called teff, which accounts for two-thirds of the daily protein
intake in hunger-stricken Ethiopia.
Mel Oliver, research leader of the U.S. Department of
Agriculture and professor of plant sciences at the University of
Missouri, is also trying to find out how resurrection plants
tolerate water loss and recover.
"The genes are there, they're just not activated. If we
understand how it works in resurrection plants, we can do it in
crops," he said by phone.
David Orr, Southern Africa spokesman for the U.N. World Food
Programme (WFP), said the research could bring benefits to
drought-susceptible Southern Africa.
"In a region where climate-related shocks are becoming more
frequent and more intense, farming communities are having to
contend with drought – and occasionally flooding – as a new
reality," he said by email.
"By having access to drought-resistant seeds and other
agricultural technologies such as water harvesting and
irrigation, they will be better equipped to face the future."
Farrant said the research could cost a total of 20 million
euros ($21 million), adding that she needed more funds to
continue her work.
Nick Vink, chair of the Department of Agricultural Economics
at Stellenbosch University in Cape Town, said weighing up the
costs versus the benefits of the research was a difficult
"The potential benefit is really very high, while it is not
easy to estimate what the probability of success is," he told
the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Chikelu Mba of the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organisation
(FAO) in Rome was hesitant to evaluate the potential of such
technologies before seeing evidence-based testing and the impact
of modified crops on the environment.
"You have to look at the effects of gene modification," he
told the Thomson Reuters Foundation via Skype.
Small farmers growing maize - a crop that can produce bumper
harvests but is susceptible to poor rainfall - may also be
persuaded to switch to unmodified crops that are simply better
able to resist drought, like beans, the FAO has said.
Farrant is confident that in time, she can deliver plants
that are resistant to drought.
"Five years, and I'll give you a resurrection plant that can
provide crops," she said, adding that testing the
drought-resistant crops might take a further five years.
"Then it is food on your plate, but it might be too long -
people need food now."
($1 = 0.9492 euros)
(Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters
Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers
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