Food crops engineered to behave like drought-tolerant succulents may better adapt to climate change

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“Water-storing tissue is one of the most successful adaptations in plants that enables them to survive long periods of drought. This anatomical trait will become more important as global temperatures rise, increasing the magnitude and duration of drought events during the 21st century,” said University of Nevada, Reno Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Professor John Cushman, co-author of a new scientific paper on plant tissue succulence published in the Plant Journal.

The work will be combined with another of Cushman’s projects: engineering another trait called crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM), a water-conserving mode of photosynthesis that can be applied to plants to improve water-use efficiency.

Cushman’s team of scientists created genetically modified A. thaliana with increased cell size resulting in larger plants with increased leaf thickness, more water-storage capacity, and fewer and less open stomatal pores to limit water loss from the leaf due to the overexpression of a gene, known as VvCEB1 to scientists.

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Engineered tissue succulence is expected to provide an effective strategy for improving water‐use efficiency, drought avoidance or attenuation, salinity tolerance and for optimizing performance of CAM.

“Essentially, CAM plants are five to six times more water-use efficient, whereas most plants are very water inefficient,” [Cushman] said. “The tissue succulence associated with CAM and other adaptive traits like thicker cuticles and the accumulation of epicuticular waxes, means that they can reduce leaf heating during the day ….

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