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Systems biology studies on plant desiccation tolerance for food security

Drought is the single greatest threat to world agriculture (FAO, 2008) and this is predicted to be increasingly exacerbated by the effects of global climate change. At present 11.6% (14.2 Mha) of South Africa is suitable for current agricultural practises (Dregne et al., 1991) and data analysis of global warming trends propose that by 2050 our country will be a desert (reviewed inter alia by Dai 2011). It is thus becoming imperative that alternative strategies be developed to meet future nutritional requirements in a country that already faces the challenge of maintaining a fragile environment in the face of a growing population. Most plants, and all current crops, are unable to tolerate even slight water deficit for prolonged periods, their default state being to avoid or resist water deficit stress under drought conditions. World-wide attempts to improve drought resistance in crops have had some success, but under severe drought conditions, resistance fails and crop loss ensues.

There are some 135 species of higher plants (termed resurrection plants), the majority being endemic to Southern Africa, that are able to lose 95% of cellular water for prolonged periods (up to years) without loss of viability (reviewed in Farrant et al., 2012). Such “resurrection plants” are also tolerant of extreme heat and nutrient poor soils. Over the past 20 years, Jill Farrant has systematically investigated the mechanisms whereby such plants are able to tolerate these extreme environmental conditions, with the view of introducing such characteristics into crops for improved drought tolerance and ultimately food security for South Africa in the face of climate change. In this regard she has been invited to put in an application for a SARCHi chair. During the month at STIAS  she will put a detailed application together for this purpose and will write the following papers based on recent work completed in her group:

  • Expression and Immunolocalization of two desiccation-linked Group-1 LEA proteins in roots and leaves of the resurrection plant Xerophyta humilis; to be submitted to Planta 
  • The genome sequence of the resurrection plant Xerophyta viscosa; to be submitted to Science

Fellows involved in this project

South Africa

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