Scientists have revealed that through some genetic tweaks they were able to enable plants to use 25% less water than they normally do. Even with a reduction in water usage, the plants saw almost no loss of mass. This means that farmers of the future could use less water, or grow genetically modified plants in drier climates with no loss in crop yield.
Today, almost 1.2 billion people live in regions where water is scarce. Another 4 billion people live in areas where experience scarcity at least one month of every year. As the planet continues to warm, this may be the solution to feeding our growing population. By 2030, the UN World Water Development report predicts that the planet will face a 40% water deficit if global warming continues at its current rate.
By altering a single gene, the team was able to coax tobacco plants – often used in experiments – to grow to near their normal size. The gene they targeted codes a protein called PsbS, which is crucial to the process of photosynthesis (in which a plant converts light into nutrients). The PsbS protein is able to monitor the quality of daylight, which triggers a plant to open and close microscopic leaf pores called stomata.
Once a plant has opened its stomata, it is then able to absorb C02 which is used for photosynthesis. Normally during this process, water is able to escape through the pores and back into the atmosphere. By tweaking the gene, the scientists were able to increase the amount of PsbS protein, which led to these pores closing much more quickly. This, ultimately, led to the plant losing less water during the process of photosynthesis.
Sadly though, this was only possible due to the extent of global warming. Our atmosphere now has about 25% more CO2 in it than it did in 1950, meaning that plants absorb the amount they need much more quickly. According to team member Stephen Long, “evolution has not kept pace with this rapid change, so scientists have given it a helping hand.”
As our planet continues to warm, it may be these kinds of solutions that are needed for us to survive.