Thriving While Thirsty

MOST PLANTS WITHER in the arid intensity of a drought. But a few persist, staving off the stresses of heat and dehydration. The roots of that resilience have long been a mystery, one with major implications for improving agriculture in drier climates. But in one recent study, CALS biochemist Michael Sussman unlocked a key piece of the puzzle.

Working with lab plants, Sussman identified a suite of proteins that the hormone abscisic acid acts on to control how plants respond to environmental stresses such as drought, radiation and extreme heat or cold. Knowing the hormone’s targets within a cell could help scientists learn how to trigger a plant’s natural defenses, such as the ability to go into a dormant phase, enabling it to better survive drought or other environmental threats.

Breeding plants with better drought resistance could improve agricultural production on marginal lands and expand agriculture into hotter, drier parts of the planet. It’s also considered an important route for equipping plants to deal with global climate change, which is already altering patterns of precipitation worldwide.

“If we can figure out how this works with crops and make them able to resist drought, the benefits would be enormous,” says Sussman. “These are the first baby steps to understand the effects of dehydration in plants, and it may give us the opportunity to develop crops that can withstand this kind of stress in the field.”