Rothamsted Research comments on findings that promise plants primed to need much less water for the same yield, which would be both environmental boon and drought saviour.

  • 06
  • MAR
  • 2018

In a paper published today in Nature Communications, an international team led by researchers at the University of Illinois reports how it improved the environmental performance of a tobacco plant to use 25% less water without compromising the crop’s yield.

The team increased expression of one gene, Photosystem II Subunit S (PsbS), which caused partial closure of the plant’s stomata, the microscopic pores in leaves that allow water to escape during transpiration and carbon dioxide to enter for photosynthesis.

And because all plants have the gene, the team suggests that their genetic manipulation should be effective across all crops.

“These plants had more water than they needed, but that won’t always be the case,” says Katarzyna Glowacka, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Illinois and the Polish Academy of Sciences, who led the research. “When water is limited, these modified plants will grow faster and yield more – they will pay less of a penalty than their non-modified counterparts.”

PsbS protein plays a key role in signalling information about the quantity of light available. By increasing PsbS, say the researchers, the plant reacts as though there is not enough light energy for photosynthesis, closing stomata because carbon dioxide is not needed to fuel the process.

The research is part of Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency (RIPE), a programme supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the US Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research and the UK Department for International Development.

Głowacka et al., 2018, Nat Comms DOI: 10.1038/s41467-018-03231-x, Photosystem II Subunit S overexpression increases the efficiency of water use in a field-grown crop

Stoma Credit: Smita Kurup/Rothamsted ResearchStoma Credit: Smita Kurup/Rothamsted ResearchOpen and closed: Stomata of Arabidopsis thaliana, showing red chloroplasts in the guard cells along with actin filaments, identified by talin fused to green fluorescent protein                                                Credit: Smita Kurup/Rothamsted Research

Rothamsted Research was asked to comment on inquiries from the media:
“This paper looks like a pretty significant breakthrough but what do the experts say on the significance of this research in the quest to feed the growing global population while conserving scarce water resources.

“Could you ask them whether applying something that has worked in a tobacco plant to conventional crops is as straightforward as the paper’s accompanying press release suggests or could it potentially be very difficult?

Comment from Rothamsted Research

Matthew Paul, Plant Scientist (specialising in molecular physiology and plant biochemistry) in Rothamsted’s Department of Plant Sciences:
“This interesting study in tobacco shows how it may eventually be possible to engineer crops that require less water.

“According to the study, overexpressing a photosynthesis gene (for a Photosystem II subunit) reduces stomatal opening without restricting CO2 uptake; as a consequence, plants lose 25% less water than in unengineered plants. 

“As this photosynthesis gene is universal, there is potential for translating this research to crops. However, the engineered plants produced less biomass; and any negative impact on yield like this would not be tolerated by breeders, farmers, agribusiness.

“Additionally, it would need to be ensured that crops did not overheat in hot weather due to less evaporative cooling. And there is need for drought testing.

“A next challenge would be to see if the approach works in elite varieties of major crops without negatively impacting their ability to yield under a range of environmental conditions commonly encountered in agriculture.”

About Rothamsted Research
Rothamsted Research is the longest-running agricultural research institute in the world. We work from gene to field with a proud history of ground-breaking discoveries, from crop treatment to crop protection, from statistical interpretation to soils management. Our founders, in 1843, were the pioneers of modern agriculture, and we are known for our imaginative science and our collaborative influence on fresh thinking and farming practices.
Through independent science and innovation, we make significant contributions to improving agri-food systems in the UK and internationally. In terms of the institute’s economic contribution, the cumulative impact of our work in the UK was calculated to exceed £3000 million a year in 20151. Our strength lies in our systems approach, which combines science and strategic research, interdisciplinary teams and partnerships.
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About LAT
The Lawes Agricultural Trust, established in 1889 by Sir John Bennet Lawes, supports Rothamsted Research’s national and international agricultural science through the provision of land, facilities and funding. LAT, a charitable trust, owns the estates at Harpenden and Broom's Barn, including many of the buildings used by Rothamsted Research. LAT provides an annual research grant to the Director, accommodation for nearly 200 people, and support for fellowships for young scientists from developing countries. LAT also makes capital grants to help modernise facilities at Rothamsted, or invests in new buildings.