In order to feed every human being on the planet by 2050, the world will need to produce far more food. One difficulty farmers face is finding enough fresh water. A group of scientists led by Katarzyna Glowacka, from the University of Illinois, Urbana, may have found a potential way to save farmers water.
The group’s technique hinges on the stomata of plants. Stomata are small pores that open when a plant wants to let in carbon dioxide, so it can begin the process of photosynthesis. However, the stomata also let out water. Glowacka’s team genetically modified a tobacco plant to open its stomata less in order to save water. They found that the tobacco plants grew to the same weight as non-genetically modified control, but required 25% less water.
This research is still very preliminary. The authors are optimistic that the new strategy would also work in food crops like wheat, corn, or soybeans. Nonetheless, they are still waiting to test actual food crops, which use carbon dioxide slightly differently at the start of photosynthesis. Our expert, John Doench, from the Broad Institute, is skeptical that the technique comes without hidden tradeoffs. After all, any plant growing in a dry climate would benefit from losing less water. If simply opening the stomata less would save water with no downsides, it seems likely some plant would have evolved to do so already. The researchers will have to conduct more testing to discover whether this genetic change has any deleterious effects on the plants.
Acknowledgements: Many thanks to John Doench for his input on this article
Managing Correspondent: Emily Kerr
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