Making plants drought-proof

July 12, 2017

Researchers Dr Su Yin Phua, Dr Kai Xun Chan, Diep Ganguly and Estee Tee.

Australian National University-led research has uncovered a breakthrough that could lead to the creation of drought-proof crops in the future.

The Canberra-based researchers discovered an enzyme prevalent in crops such as rice and wheat which senses drought conditions and sunlight conditions, triggering a response in the plant.

‘‘The sensor is able to sense when conditions become unfavourable, such as during extreme drought stress, by changing itself into a form with altered shape and activity,’’ lead researcher Dr Kai Xun Chan said.

‘‘This sets off a ‘fire alarm’ in the plant, telling it to respond to drought by making beneficial chemical compounds, for instance. But in the field, this can occur too late and the plant would have already suffered damage.’’

The team of researchers will now turn their focus to how to trigger the alarm in the plant earlier at the first signs of water deficit, helping crops to survive severe droughts.

Drought normally affects wheat at the flowering and seed stage, which is critical in determining the size of a crop’s harvest.

If the sensor alarm in the plant can be activated faster during a dry season, the plant can activate counter-measures in its leaves to prevent unnecessary water loss and ensure it survives until the next rainfall.

The creation of drought-tolerant crops is tipped to be key to ensuring global food security and reducing the impact of drought on the national economy.

A 2015 Climate Council report found that the Australian GDP fell one per cent due to drought and lower agricultural production in 2002 and 2003.

‘‘We’re really excited about the potential application of this research, which range from genetic modifications and plant breeding to the development of a chemical spray that directly targets this sensor to set off the alarm in plants,’’ Dr Chan said.

‘‘This could save crops and ensure they produce bigger yields. The chemical spray would provide an innovative way to reduce the impact of drought stress.’’

The research team will now use a 3D model of the sensor enzyme to identify potential chemcial compounds that match well with the enzyme’s structure in order to develop a chemical spray.

‘‘Within two years we hope to identify potential compounds for a chemical spray which will rescue crop yields. We would then need to perfect a compound in consultation with farmers and other industry players,’’ Dr Chan said.

The study has already received further funding from ANU Connect Ventures Discovery Translational Fund to continue the research.

The project involved collaborations with the University of Western Australia, University of Birmingham in England and University of Cologne in Germany.

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