Drought is spreading across farmland worldwide — and it's only going to get more intense. New research offers a clue on how we might be able to continue to grow the staples we're used to but with much less water. Palouse wheat fields (Image: Charles Knowles)
A lot of staple crops, like rice and wheat, actually have a defence mechanism to protect against drought. But by the time it kicks in, it's often too late. Researchers at the Australian National University have just identified the enzyme — phosphatase SAL1 — responsible in a new paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Now, they want to use it to push plants into drought-mode early.
The researchers say the enzyme acts like a "fire alarm" in the plant. The problem is that its like a fire alarm that doesn't start to blare until at least a few rooms of your house are already ash. The defence mechanism cuts down on water loss and usage in the plant, but it will only kick-in when the plant has been in steady drought-like conditions for a long period of time.
By the time a plant goes into water-preservation mode, it's often already fairly mature. Unfortunately, plants are especially vulnerable to damage in their early seedling stages. So starting drought-countermeasures early could mean that plants are more likely to not only survive but to produce a larger edible product in the end.
Now that researchers have figured out what and where the enzyme trigger is, their next step is to figure out how to use it. So far, it's only a first step, but in a rapidly drying world, it could end up being a pivotal one.