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"Exquisite" mechanism will help plants survive drought

Scientists have identified an “exquisite” natural mechanism that helps plants limit their water loss with little effect on carbon dioxide (CO2) intake. The study, led by Australian National University (ANU), touches on an essential process for photosynthesis, plant growth and crop yield. 

The discovery is expected to help agricultural scientists and plant breeders develop more water-efficient crops that are resilient to extreme weather events such as drought.  

“Plants continuously lose water through pores in the ‘skin’ of their leaves. These same pores allow CO2 to enter the leaves and are critical to their survival,” said study co-author Dr Marquez.  “For every unit of CO2 gained, plants typically lose hundreds of units of water. This is why plants require a lot of water in order to grow and survive.”

“The mechanism we have demonstrated is activated when the environment is dry, such as on a hot summer day, to allow the plant to reduce water loss with little effect on CO2 uptake.”

The researchers believe this water preserving mechanism can be manipulated to breed more water-efficient crops.  

According to study lead author Dr. Chin  Wong, the ANU team’s findings are a “dream discovery” from a scientific and agricultural perspective. The agricultural industry has long waited for a way to deliver crops that use water efficiently. 

Although the researchers have confirmed there is a system in place that is working to limit the amount of water being lost from the leaf, they still do not know what’s causing it.   

“Our main target now is to identify the structures inside the plant that allow this control. We think that water conduits, called aquaporins, located in the cell membranes are responsible,” said Dr. Marquez. 

Once this can be confirmed, the team will continue to explore how these systems can become an asset for the agriculture industry.

Dr. Wong first alluded to this water preserving mechanism 14 years ago, but the research team has only now been able to officially confirm its existence thanks to years of experimentation and corroboration of their results.  

The study is published in the journal Nature Plants

By Katherine Bucko, Staff Writer

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