Crop Biotech Update

Water-saving Plants Help Develop Drought Resistant Crops

December 14, 2016

Scientists at the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) have uncovered the genetic and metabolic mechanisms that allow certain plants to conserve water and thrive in semi-arid climates. Semi-arid plants, such as agave, have survived in areas with little or no rainfall by developing a specialized mode of photosynthesis called crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM).

To understand CAM photosynthesis, the research team compared the molecular traits of agave with Arabidopsis, which uses a more common photosynthetic process. The team evaluated genetic behavior that signals stomatal movement in each plant over the same 24-hour period. They found that the timing of daytime against nighttime stomatal activity varied significantly between agave and Arabidopsis. The research also identified the genetic and metabolic mechanisms that signal CAM plants to open and close their stomata. Understanding the timing of these signals will be key to transferring CAM processes into crops such as rice, corn, poplar, and switchgrass.

Gerald Tuskan, ORNL Corporate Fellow and coauthor, said "The transfer of CAM molecular machinery into energy crops would facilitate their deployment onto marginal lands and would simultaneously reduce competition with food crops."

For more information, read the news release from ORNL.