Unless you’re a Rick Perry-liking creationist, anti-scientist type, or someone on a decades long information Sabbath who ignores data from climatologists and demographers, you probably accept that Earth is getting hotter, that population is increasing, that water resources are dwindling. And you’re probably on board with the idea that it would be a really wonderful thing if humans could grow lettuce and cucumbers and apples and raspberries in arid environments, without tapping some aquifer or siphoning off drinking water from people in LA or Phoenix.
Well, great news: earlier this month, a team of scientists at UC-Riverside announced a major breakthrough that could ultimately lead process to engineer drought-tolerant crops.
The researchers, led by plant scientist Sean Cutler, identified a means to regulate the stress- relieving hormones that enable plants to weather droughts. Specifically, they’ve learned how to activate and deactivate what are known as abscisic acid receptors, which control how plants respond to their surroundings. Cutler’s lab has found ways to make receptors open and close on command by altering plant genes. They tested hundreds of variants to figure out which alterations cause these receptors to behave optimally in periods of drought. The result: they’ve developed a mustard-type plant, called Arabidopsis, with a heightened ability to survive under harsh conditions.
While the release of drought-resistant lettuces and tomatoes is probably still years off, the potential upside of Cutler’s drought-resistant Arabidopsis is game-changing. In a world with diminishing water resources, a drought-resistant crop could be a huge boon to water conservation efforts. A recent New York Times piece, for instance, spotlighted the water challenges for organic farmers in Mexico. If the goal is sustainability, why not consider a drought-resistant, pesticide-free GMO crop?)
Equally important, a drought-resistant GMO plants could potentially create more opportunities– land previously deemed unfit for certain crops could become viable. (There’s a fascinating piece, fyi, in the most recent New Yorker that focuses on effort to stop desertification in Africa)
Cutler’s work is not unknown in the plant science world. Work leading to the supercharged mustard plant was one of Science magazine breakthroughs of the year in 2009. For more scientific detail on Cutler’s work to engineer drought resistance crops, you can check out the Dec. 20 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Of his breakthrough, Cutler told one researcher. “I would like to see farmers bragging about how little water their plants can get by on.”
Here’s an interview with Cutler.