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Australian 'Resurrection Plants' Shed Light On Ways To Create Drought-Tolerant Crops

Dec 07, 2015 12:32 PM EST
Dead Plants
Native Australian "resurrection plants" store sugars and recycle cells to survive long dry episodes. Using this, researchers may be able to design drought-resistant crops.
(Photo : Wikimedia Commons )

During periods of drought, a native Australian grass, Tripogon loliiformis, "plays dead" to reserve its energy for when it is later resurrected by water, according to researchers from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT). While a few other plants do this too, all of them known as "resurrection plants," the QUT team notes that this ability may provide genetic keys to designing plants with a tolerance for increasing global temperatures. 

"Global climate change, increasingly erratic weather and a burgeoning global population are significant threats to the sustainability of future crop production, but resurrection plants present great potential for the development of stress tolerant crops," Dr. Brett Williams, one of the study researchers from the QUT, said in a news release, adding that their findings could be applied to world food crops such as chickpeas. 

T. loliiformis essentially culls its own cells to survive long droughts that suck up to 95 percent of its relative water content. While the plants may appear dead-looking, the grasses remain alive and their pre-existing tissues are able to flourish again when revived by water. Until now, how plants are able to to this -- whether they really do come alive again from a dormant state or if new cell growth is seperate from old cells -- has remained a mystery. 

So what did they find? QUT researchers revealed sugar manipulation and the controlled sacrifice of cells allows the plants to survive periods of drought. This basically means the plants accumulate a sugar known as trehalose, which it uses to trigger autophagy, the process that allows for the orderly degradation and recycling of plant cells and nutrients necessary for regrowth. However, extended periods of drought could lead to death, too. 

"The resurrection plant controls the levels of autophagy to prevent death upon drying," Professor Sagadevan Mundree of QUT explained in the university's release. "Our analysis directly linked the accumulation of trehalose with the onset of autophagy in dehydrated and dried out T. loliiformis shoots. Presumably, once induced, autophagy promotes desiccation tolerance in the grass, by recycling nutrients and removing cellular toxins to suppress programmed cell death. These findings illustrate how resurrection plants manipulate sugar metabolism to promote desiccation tolerance and may provide candidate genes that are potentially useful for the development of stress tolerant crops."

Their findings were recently published in the journal PLOS Genetics.

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