I believe that the secret to producing extremely drought-tolerant crops, which should go some way to providing food security in the world, lies in resurrection plants, pictured here, in an extremely droughted state. You might think that these plants look dead, but they're not. Give them water, and they will resurrect, green up, start growing, in 12 to 48 hours.
Now, why would I suggest that producing drought-tolerant crops will go towards providing food security? Well, the current world population is around 7 billion. And it's estimated that by 2050, we'll be between 9 and 10 billion people, with the bulk of this growth happening in Africa.
The food and agricultural organizations of the world have suggested that we need a 70 percent increase in current agricultural practice to meet that demand. Given that plants are at the base of the food chain, most of that's going to have to come from plants.
That percentage of 70 percent does not take into consideration the potential effects of climate change.
This is taken from a study by Dai published in 2011, where he took into consideration all the potential effects of climate change and expressed them — amongst other things — increased aridity due to lack of rain or infrequent rain. The areas in red shown here, are areas that until recently have been very successfully used for agriculture, but cannot anymore because of lack of rainfall. This is the situation that's predicted to happen in 2050. Much of Africa, in fact, much of the world, is going to be in trouble. We're going to have to think of some very smart ways of producing food. And preferably among them, some drought-tolerant crops.
The other thing to remember about Africa is that most of their agriculture is rainfed.
Now, making drought-tolerant crops is not the easiest thing in the world. And the reason for this is water. Water is essential to life on this planet. All living, actively metabolizing organisms, from microbes to you and I, are comprised predominately of water. All life reactions happen in water. And loss of a small amount of water results in death. You and I are 65 percent water — we lose one percent of that, we die. But we can make behavioral changes to avoid that. Plants can't. They're stuck in the ground. And so in the first instance they have a little bit more water than us, about 95 percent water, and they can lose a little bit more than us, like 10 to about 70 percent, depending on the species, but for short periods only.
Most of them will either try to resist or avoid water loss. So extreme examples of resistors can be found in succulents. They tend to be small, very attractive, but they hold onto their water at such great cost that they grow extremely slowly. Examples of avoidance of water loss are found in trees and shrubs. They send down very deep roots, mine subterranean water supplies and just keep flushing it through them at all times, keeping themselves hydrated.
The one on the right is called a baobab. It's also called the upside-down tree, simply because the proportion of roots to shoots is so great that it looks like the tree has been planted upside down. And of course the roots are required for hydration of that plant.
And probably the most common strategy of avoidance is found in annuals. Annuals make up the bulk of our plant food supplies. Up the west coast of my country, for much of the year you don't see much vegetation growth. But come the spring rains, you get this: flowering of the desert.
The strategy in annuals, is to grow only in the rainy season. At the end of that season they produce a seed, which is dry, eight to 10 percent water, but very much alive. And anything that is that dry and still alive, we call desiccation-tolerant.
In the desiccated state, what seeds can do is lie in extremes of environment for prolonged periods of time. The next time the rainy season comes, they germinate and grow, and the whole cycle just starts again.
It's widely believed that the evolution of desiccation-tolerant seeds allowed the colonization and the radiation of flowering plants, or angiosperms, onto land.
But back to annuals as our major form of food supplies. Wheat, rice and maize form 95 percent of our plant food supplies. And it's been a great strategy because in a short space of time you can produce a lot of seed. Seeds are energy-rich so there's a lot of food calories, you can store it in times of plenty for times of famine, but there's a downside. The vegetative tissues, the roots and leaves of annuals, do not have much by way of inherent resistance, avoidance or tolerance characteristics. They just don't need them. They grow in the rainy season and they've got a seed to help them survive the rest of the year.
And so despite concerted efforts in agriculture to make crops with improved properties of resistance, avoidance and tolerance — particularly resistance and avoidance because we've had good models to understand how those work — we still get images like this. Maize crop in Africa, two weeks without rain and it's dead.
There is a solution: resurrection plants. These plants can lose 95 percent of their cellular water, remain in a dry, dead-like state for months to years, and give them water, they green up and start growing again. Like seeds, these are desiccation-tolerant. Like seeds, these can withstand extremes of environmental conditions. And this is a really rare phenomenon. There are only 135 flowering plant species that can do this.
I'm going to show you a video of the resurrection process of these three species in that order. And at the bottom, there's a time axis so you can see how quickly it happens.
Pretty amazing, huh?
So I've spent the last 21 years trying to understand how they do this. How do these plants dry without dying? And I work on a variety of different resurrection plants, shown here in the hydrated and dry states, for a number of reasons.
One of them is that each of these plants serves as a model for a crop that I'd like to make drought-tolerant.
So on the extreme top left, for example, is a grass, it's called Eragrostis nindensis, it's got a close relative called Eragrostis tef — a lot of you might know it as "teff" — it's a staple food in Ethiopia, it's gluten-free, and it's something we would like to make drought-tolerant.
The other reason for looking at a number of plants, is that, at least initially, I wanted to find out: do they do the same thing? Do they all use the same mechanisms to be able to lose all that water and not die?
So I undertook what we call a systems biology approach in order to get a comprehensive understanding of desiccation tolerance, in which we look at everything from the molecular to the whole plant, ecophysiological level.
For example we look at things like changes in the plant anatomy as they dried out and their ultrastructure. We look at the transcriptome, which is just a term for a technology in which we look at the genes that are switched on or off, in response to drying. Most genes will code for proteins, so we look at the proteome. What are the proteins made in response to drying? Some proteins would code for enzymes which make metabolites, so we look at the metabolome.
Now, this is important because plants are stuck in the ground. They use what I call a highly tuned chemical arsenal to protect themselves from all the stresses of their environment. So it's important that we look at the chemical changes involved in drying.
And at the last study that we do at the molecular level, we look at the lipidome — the lipid changes in response to drying. And that's also important because all biological membranes are made of lipids. They're held as membranes because they're in water. Take away the water, those membranes fall apart. Lipids also act as signals to turn on genes.
Then we use physiological and biochemical studies to try and understand the function of the putative protectants that we've actually discovered in our other studies. And then use all of that to try and understand how the plant copes with its natural environment.
I've always had the philosophy that I needed a comprehensive understanding of the mechanisms of desiccation tolerance in order to make a meaningful suggestion for a biotic application.
I'm sure some of you are thinking, "By biotic application, does she mean she's going to make genetically modified crops?" And the answer to that question is: depends on your definition of genetic modification.
All of the crops that we eat today, wheat, rice and maize, are highly genetically modified from their ancestors, but we don't consider them GM because they're being produced by conventional breeding. If you mean, am I going to put resurrection plant genes into crops, your answer is yes.
In the essence of time, we have tried that approach. More appropriately, some of my collaborators at UCT, Jennifer Thomson, Suhail Rafudeen, have spearheaded that approach and I'm going to show you some data soon.
But we're about to embark upon an extremely ambitious approach, in which we aim to turn on whole suites of genes that are already present in every crop. They're just never turned on under extreme drought conditions. I leave it up to you to decide whether those should be called GM or not.
I'm going to now just give you some of the data from that first approach. And in order to do that I have to explain a little bit about how genes work.
So you probably all know that genes are made of double-stranded DNA. It's wound very tightly into chromosomes that are present in every cell of your body or in a plant's body. If you unwind that DNA, you get genes. And each gene has a promoter, which is just an on-off switch, the gene coding region, and then a terminator, which indicates that this is the end of this gene, the next gene will start.
Now, promoters are not simple on-off switches. They normally require a lot of fine-tuning, lots of things to be present and correct before that gene is switched on. So what's typically done in biotech studies is that we use an inducible promoter, we know how to switch it on. We couple that to genes of interest and put that into a plant and see how the plant responds.
In the study that I'm going to talk to you about, my collaborators used a drought-induced promoter, which we discovered in a resurrection plant. The nice thing about this promoter is that we do nothing. The plant itself senses drought. And we've used it to drive antioxidant genes from resurrection plants. Why antioxidant genes? Well, all stresses, particularly drought stress, results in the formation of free radicals, or reactive oxygen species, which are highly damaging and can cause crop death. What antioxidants do is stop that damage.
So here's some data from a maize strain that's very popularly used in Africa. To the left of the arrow are plants without the genes, to the right — plants with the antioxidant genes. After three weeks without watering, the ones with the genes do a hell of a lot better.
Now to the final approach. My research has shown that there's considerable similarity in the mechanisms of desiccation tolerance in seeds and resurrection plants. So I ask the question, are they using the same genes? Or slightly differently phrased, are resurrection plants using genes evolved in seed desiccation tolerance in their roots and leaves? Have they retasked these seed genes in roots and leaves of resurrection plants?
And I answer that question, as a consequence of a lot of research from my group and recent collaborations from a group of Henk Hilhorst in the Netherlands, Mel Oliver in the United States and Julia Buitink in France. The answer is yes, that there is a core set of genes that are involved in both.
And I'm going to illustrate this very crudely for maize, where the chromosomes below the off switch represent all the genes that are required for desiccation tolerance. So as maize seeds dried out at the end of their period of development, they switch these genes on. Resurrection plants switch on the same genes when they dry out. All modern crops, therefore, have these genes in their roots and leaves, they just never switch them on. They only switch them on in seed tissues.
So what we're trying to do right now is to understand the environmental and cellular signals that switch on these genes in resurrection plants, to mimic the process in crops.
And just a final thought. What we're trying to do very rapidly is to repeat what nature did in the evolution of resurrection plants some 10 to 40 million years ago.
My plants and I thank you for your attention.