In a new study, researchers have come across a gene that is similar to thermostat and could help them engineer drought-resistant crops.
According to the researchers of Duke University, the gene, called OSCA1, encodes a protein in the cell membrane of plants that senses changes in water availability and adjusts the plant's water conservation machinery accordingly.
Water shortages are expected to become more frequent and severe if climate change makes rainfall patterns increasingly unreliable and farmland in some regions continues to dry up. Coupled with a world population that is expected to increase by two billion to three billion by 2050, researchers worldwide are looking for ways to produce more food with less water.
Some researchers hope that genetic engineering would add to the arsenal of techniques to help crops withstand summer's swelter. But engineering plants to withstand drought has proven difficult to do, largely because plants use so many strategies to deal with dehydration and hundreds of genes are involved.
The gene, OSCA1, which allows calcium to surge into the cell in times of drought, was identified in Arabidopsis thaliana, a small unassuming plant related to cabbage and canola that is the lab rat of plant research.
The team's further plans to manipulate the activity of the OSCA1 gene and related genes and see how those plants respond to drought, information that could lead to crops that respond more quickly and efficiently to dehydration.
Associate professor, Zhen-Ming Pei, said that 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.
The study is published in the journal Nature.