Picture: THINKSTOCK
Picture: THINKSTOCK

IMAGINE crops that are truly drought resistant and can survive for months without water.

This is the aim of Jill Farrant, who has the research chair in plant molecular physiology at the University of Cape.

She studies "resurrection plants", which exhibit vegetative desiccation tolerance — it means they can lose 95% of their water and "come back to life". One of the most common examples is the "bobbejaanstert" (Xerophyta retinervis).

These plants can survive for up to 15 years in a "dead state", but "green up" within 24-76 hours after being watered, Prof Farrant says. Of the 300 flower plant species that displayed this behaviour, about 90% of them were found in Southern Africa.

Plants do exhibit this vegetative desiccation tolerance when they produce seeds, which can often be kept in storage for months. Prof Farrant is trying to identify linkages between the process of seed formation and resurrection plants, which have this characteristic desiccation tolerance.

She hopes once this link has been identified, it can be applied to other plants, particularly drought tolerant crops.

Africa is especially susceptible to extreme weather and climate change, given its lack of infrastructure, high poverty levels and widespread subsistence farming. The drought in the Horn of Africa in 2011 threatened the livelihoods of millions of people, and led the United Nations to declare a famine in Somalia, the first official one in 30 years.

"Several different approaches are being taken to address the problem of decreased water availability for agricultural purposes," Prof Farrant writes in an article, Physiological response of selected eragrostis species to water-deficit stress, published in African Journal of Biotechnology in 2011.

"(The new approaches) include conventional plant breeding, genetic modification, hormonal and chemical treatments. None thus far have been able to confer tolerance to severe drought."

Resurrection plants "serve as ideal models for identifying the characteristics that enable tolerance of water deficit stress".

Prof Farrant is determined that her expertise should stay in South Africa. "I have been offered many jobs, but I want to stick around and make a difference.

"I don’t want to have this technology taken from (SA)."

Supervising postgraduate students is a core aspect of her research chair position. Prof Farrant says she has 18 students, but "always (appoints) a co-supervisor. I cannot be an expert in everything."

With Sue Blaine