A group of scientists from the University of Washington in Seattleand New Mexico State University believe they have found the key in making plants robust enough to endure extreme drought conditions, like the ones currently sweeping the US. The team believe that by utilizing microbiome, the mixture of fungi, bacteria and viruses that live in the root systems of every plant, they can engineer plants to survive extreme heat.

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As there are many plants that can live in extreme environments, including desert conditions, Russell Rodriguez of the University of Washington in Seattle believes that the microbiome from such plants can used to help plants to survive stressful conditions.

“Plants can’t do it on their own,” he said speaking to New Scientist, explaining how the symbiotic microorganisms would help the plants take up nitrogen from the soil whilst protecting them from heat, drought and disease-causing organisms.

The idea first came to Rodriguez and his team in 2002, when they discovered a particular type of grass (Dichanthelium lanuginosum) that grows at 70 °C near the geothermal hotsprings of Yellowstone. When they removed the fungi that grew inside the plant, they found that the grass could no longer grow at high temperatures. In an ‘eureka!’ moment, the team wondered if they transferred  the microbiome of a drought-tolerant plant into a normal plant, would it help it use less water?

Rodriguez and his colleagues isolated spores from Dichanthelium lanuginosuma’s fungi and sprayed them onto wheat seeds. These seeds normally grow at temperatures up to 38 °C, but the team discovered that with the inclusion of the spores, the wheat could grow at 70 °C and needed up to 50% less water! What was even more surprising was how instantaneous the effect was.Within 24 hours of being sprayed, the seeds began sprouting a greater number of longer roots than untreated seeds.

“The plant has the ability to do all this, it just can’t get its act together without the fungi,” Rodrigeuz said, hoping that the breakthrough could be used to save crops that are currently being ravaged by the heat.

Barrow and Mary Lucero, fromNew Mexico State University, who have conducted similiar tested by transferring the endophytic fungi and bacteria from the drought-tolerant desert plants Atriplex canescens and Bouteloua eriopoda into tomatoes, chillies and grasses that would serve as feedstock for cattle, also belive it has world-changing potential.

“Biotechs can’t work fast enough to meet the pressures of 7 billion people and climate change,” says Lucero. “To meet food demands, we need to adapt quickly.”

+ University of Washington/New Mexico State University

ViaNew Scientist

Images: Giro555and Frank J Livers