More than two billion people have been affected by drought over recent years but now new research may lead to drought resistant crops.
Scientists from Duke University hacked into a plant’s genetics and found a gene that tells the plant to conserve water when it senses there is not much available.
The discovery of the gene may help to enhance plants to react to drought conditions which could help to increase the amount of crops which could still grow despite a lack of water.
Figures from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation say that since 1900 more than 11m people have died from droughts.
These have been from either unsafe water sources or the negative impact they have upon crops.
Plants can adapt to a lack of water by increasing the amount of calcium in their cells.
The calcium levels then tell the plant that there is a lack of water, which can trigger further coping mechanisms.
The researchers identified the gene in the Arabidopsis thaliana plant – which is often used in lab research.
They said that the gene encodes a protein in the cell membranes of plant leaves and roots so it knows there is a lack of water.
Plants with defective versions of the calcium channel don’t send an alarm signal under water stress like normal plants do.
The team from the university grew normal plants and those with a defective version of the gene in the same pot.
When the plants were exposed to drought conditions, the plants wilted more than those with the gene intact.
Zhen-Ming Pei, an associate professor of biology at Duke who worked on the research, said that it is likely that plants will be able to be altered to adapt to the drought conditions.
“Plants that enter drought-fighting mode quickly and then switch back to normal growth mode quickly when drought stress is gone should be able to allocate energy more efficiently toward growth,” she said.
Now the researchers hope that they will be able to manipulate the gene and change it to a level where plants can be created to cope better without as much water as they would normally have.