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Water 'thermostat' could help engineer drought-resistant crops

This blog was crossposted from ScienceDaily.com. The post was orifinally written by Duke University.

Crops grown on the farm of Davane Mesa Paulo. Thanks to USAID, he now understands the importance of planting in rows, using high-quality seed, and other crucial growing techniques. Photo by Bita Rodriguez

Duke University researchers have identified a gene that could help scientists engineer drought-resistant crops. The gene, called OSCA1, encodes a protein in the cell membrane of plants that senses changes in water availability and adjusts the plant's water conservation machinery accordingly.

"It's similar to a thermostat," said Zhen-Ming Pei, an associate professor of biology at Duke.

The findings, which appear Aug. 28 in the journal Nature, could make it easier to feed the world's growing population in the face of climate change.

Drought is the major cause of crop losses worldwide. A dry spell at a crucial stage of the growing season can cut some crop yields in half.

Water shortages are expected to become more frequent and severe if climate change makes rainfall patterns increasingly unreliable and farmland in some regions continues to dry up. Coupled with a world population that is expected to increase by two billion to three billion by 2050, researchers worldwide are looking for ways to produce more food with less water.

Some researchers hope that genetic engineering -- in addition to improved farming practices and traditional plant breeding -- will add to the arsenal of techniques to help crops withstand summer's swelter. But engineering plants to withstand drought has proven difficult to do, largely because plants use so many strategies to deal with dehydration and hundreds of genes are involved.

The problem is confounded by the fact that drought is often accompanied by heat waves and other stresses that require different coping strategies on the part of the plant, Pei said.

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