Getting plants "drunk" helps battle damage from drought

3 mins
06 Sep 2022

Didn't see that one coming but it's a mood, not going to lie

words Megan Wallace

With temperatures rising globally, this summer has seen widespread droughts which could threaten food supplies until 2023. Global warming sadly shows no sign of stopping any time soon and, up until now, it has been thought that we may have to resort to chemically engineering plants to help crops withstand changing climates in future.

Researchers even recently discovered that the common plant hogweed undertakes two rather than one forms of photosynthesis, making it possible to function in hotter climates. As a result, scientists are interested in the possibility of harnessing this weed for the chemical engineering future plant strains.

However, a new study into the survival of plants during drought has led to an interesting breakthrough: alcohol could play a significant role in preventing food shortages during drought without the use of chemical engineering. Let's unpack that, shall we? Well, it seems that plants thrive in arid conditions when soil is steeped in ethanol, a simple alcohol, even if they have gone a full fortnight without water.

The study, published in August in the journal Plant and Cell Physiology, was led by researchers at the RIKEN Center for Sustainable Resource Science in Japan, and could have some seriously positive implications for the future: specifically by offering a cheap and accessible way to drought-proof crops and lessen the impact of rising temperatures on plants.

Speaking of the study’s findings, Lead author Dr Motoaki Seki, of the RIKEN Centre for Sustainable Resource Science in Japan, said: ‘We find treating common crops such as wheat and rice with exogenous ethanol can increase production during drought.”

“As in [the plant] Arabidopsis, this is likely via changes in the metabolomic and transcriptomic profiles that regulate the drought-stress response,” he continued. “This offers us a cheap and easy way to increase crop yield even when water is limited, without the need for genetic modification.”

The experiment focussed on the crops wheat and rice as well as the plant Arabidopsis, growing them for a fortnight using plenty of water before pretreating the soil for three days with 3% ethanol and stopping the water supply for two weeks.

As for the results, the study found that around 75% of ethanol-treated wheat and rice plants managed to survive the two-week drought, while less than 5% of plants which didn’t receive an ethanol treatment died.

So there you have it, turns out plants could benefit from a tipple or two: we just hope they can handle the hangxiety.

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