Letting crops ‘resurrect themselves’ after a drought
South Africa is especially abundant in plants with a unique trait: they can completely wither in a drought and then revive and continue to grow as soon as it rains. The special traits of these ‘resurrection plants’ could be the key to a real revolution in global food production as we know that other plants are also capable of surviving drought in this way – they have just forgotten how.
WHY THIS RESEARCH?
Certain sorts of plants in Africa can ‘resurrect’ themselves at the first rainfall after a long drought. This is a trait common to many plants, but most food crops have lost it, which is why crops can fail.
Secure harvests in Africa as well as in increasingly dry regions closer to home by ‘reminding’ crops again how to survive droughts.
“This is connected to how crops have evolved,” explained research leader Henk Hilhorst. “As plants growing here in the Netherlands such as maize or grass have not had to worry about droughts, their survival mechanism was gradually deactivated. Another reason was breeding: selecting for yield also reduced resistance to droughts. But plants retain this mechanism in their seeds, which can still be dried, saved for a long time and then reactivated by being given water.”
‘If our research is successful, the crop will dry out but not die. As soon as it rains, growth will continue’
“As a seed biologist at Wageningen University & Research (WUR), I have been studying the development and use of seeds for years. A few years ago I met researcher Jill Farrant of the University of Cape Town and discovered that she was doing similar research, focused on the so-called ‘resurrection plants’. We compared our findings and this was the beginning of our intensive ongoing collaboration. We share students, scientists, laboratories and results, bringing together disciplines like plant physiology, molecular biology and biotechnology.”
University of Cape Town (South Africa)
the Netherlands &
Dehydrated crops. Photo: Shutterstock
There is ongoing research into making crops drought-resistant. “We have come very far in finding the switch that the ‘resurrection plants’ use to dry out and then grow again,” adds Hilhorst. “All of our findings point in the direction of a specific group of genes. We are really very close and doing everything possible to attract financing so we can actually identify the switch and eventually operate it in crops. And this is achieved without having to use genetic modification. Everyone we talk to is enthusiastic about this potentially groundbreaking fundamental research, although the proof of concept is not yet available. There are some final steps to take and we are calling on the help of philanthropic donors: together we can really make a difference.”
The idea is that the research will find the switch that resurrects plants. Photo: Shutterstock
“And it is a far-reaching difference as finding the switch will open up a new world. A lot of agriculture depends on rain. Climate change is making it more difficult to predict rain. Seasonal mechanisms are becoming less certain. Long-lasting droughts or droughts at unusual moments are becoming more frequent. In these situations, average crops can die within a few weeks. If our research succeeds, drought will still affect the plants, but not kill them. They will revive and continue growing as soon as it rains again. Harvests may be smaller, but will not completely fail. And it is important to remember that, while drought may sound like a problem confined to the Middle East or Africa, climate change is making conditions much drier in Europe as well. We have to be aware of this.”
AVAILABLE FOR EVERY FARMER AND COMMUNITY
Hilhorst is clear about his motivations: “For me personally, this project represents a way to do something for humanity. I am approaching retirement and I would like to leave a legacy. My colleagues in Cape Town and I have made it clear that, if we find the solution, it must be made available to every individual farmer and community around the world. We are not going to sell the exclusive use of this technology to a seed company.”
DR HENK HILHORST
Associate Professor Plant Sciences, Wageningen University & Research
Molecular genetics, Molecular plant biology, Plant physiology, Seeds
Photo: Gea Hogeveen