Scientists are finding surprising ways to keep your plants alive in a drought

Scientists are finding surprising ways to keep your plants alive in a drought

Scientists are finding surprising ways to keep your plants alive in a drought

drought - Vuk Valcic/ZUMA Presse/Cover images

drought – Vuk Valcic/ZUMA Presse/Cover images

The morning after a night out often comes with a dehydration-induced headache and dry mouth, with paracetamol and a liter of water as the only cure.

But scientists have now found that alcohol has the opposite effect on plants, helping to retain water as opposed to flushing it out.

Scientists say the chemical could help farmers and their crops beat drought in the future.

Academics from Japan have found that ethanol – the intoxicating compound found in beer and wine – helps make plants more drought-resistant and better able to survive a prolonged period of dry weather.

Experiments found that getting plants full helps crops flourish while sober plants become shriveled and scraggly.

Plants lose water through their leaves when pores called stomata open to allow it to escape, but ethanol helps keep these closed, the researchers found, thereby improving water retention.

In the experiment, plants were grown under normal conditions for a fortnight and were regularly watered before the team then stopped watering. The soil of half of the crops was treated with ethanol for three days while the rest was left as normal.

Three-quarters of the rice and wheat plants given the alcohol treatment survived when watered again two weeks later, but only one in 20 of the untreated plants came back to life.

Uses alcohol as fuel

A follow-up laboratory experiment on a well-studied cress species showed that treatment with alcohol closes the stomata, helping to trap water in the leaves.

Genetic analysis of the plant also showed that plants switch on drought-fighting genes when ethanol is picked up by the roots.

This not only stopped the loss of water through the valve-like stomata, but also saw the plant start a process where it actually uses the alcohol as fuel.

Photosynthesis, the vital process that plants use to make energy from sunlight, needs water, but in the study, published in the journal Plant and Cell Physiology, the team found that the plant can do this with ethanol instead in times of drought to save further decline. delivers while still creating energy.

This metabolization of alcohol also means that the stores would not be stocked with alcoholic food if an alcohol-supported plant was harvested, as it would have long ago been converted into energy by the plant.

“We find that treating common crops such as wheat and rice with exogenous ethanol can increase crop production during drought,” said Dr Motoaki Seki, study leader from RIKEN.

“This is likely via changes in metabolomic and transcriptomic profiles that regulate the drought stress response.”

In the paper, the team state that ethanol is “a cheap and environmentally friendly chemical”, with Dr Seki adding that drinking plants is “a cheap and easy way to increase our yield”.

“No serious concerns”

Dr Seki told The Telegraph that ethanol is unlikely to have any negative effects if added to crop fields, adding that he “has no serious concerns about the use of low concentrations of ethanol”.

However, he added that “we need to analyze the environmental impact of ethanol spray in the field” before it can be widely recommended on a commercial scale.

This approach, the team says, is not the only way for farmers to overcome the drought. Another popular avenue is genetic modification, in which scientists tinker with the DNA of a cultivar to make it better at tolerating dryness—for example, by turning on genes to close stomata.

Ten of the country’s 14 regions are now officially in drought, and August is set to be drier than normal, with less than half the rainfall forecast for an average year, falling to just 29 per cent in the South East, according to the Met Office .

By next week, six water companies serving almost 30 million customers will have implemented a nationwide hose ban following England’s driest July for 50 years.

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