UK scientists develop drought-tolerant wheat plants

Scientists have developed wheat plants engineered to better survive drought conditions associated with climate breakdown.

Researchers at the University of Sheffield found that engineering bread wheat to have fewer microscopic stomata – or pores – helps the crop to use water more efficiently, while maintaining yields.

Like most plants, wheat uses stomata to regulate its intake of carbon dioxide for photosynthesis, as well as the release of water vapour. When water is plentiful, stomatal opening helps plants to regulate temperature by evaporative cooling – similar to sweating.

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In drought conditions, wheat plants normally close their stomata to slow down water loss – but wheat with fewer stomata has been found to conserve water even better, and can use that water to cool itself.

During the study, published in the Journal of Experimental Botany, the scientists grew wheat in conditions similar to those expected under climate breakdown – with higher levels of carbon dioxide and less water.

Compared with conventional wheat, the engineered plants used less water, while maintaining photosynthesis and yield.

Julie Gray, professor of plant molecular biology at the University of Sheffield’s Institute for Sustainable Food, said: “Wheat is a staple food for millions of people around the world – but as extreme droughts become more frequent, farmers face the prospect of dwindling yields.

“Developing wheat that uses water more efficiently will help us to feed our growing population, while using fewer natural resources – making our food systems more resilient in the face of climate breakdown.”

Water scarcity

Agriculture accounts for 80-90% of freshwater use around the world, and on average it takes more than 1,800 litres of water to produce a single kilogramme of wheat.

Yet, as water supplies become scarce and more variable in the face of climate breakdown, farmers will need to produce more food than ever to feed a growing population.

The discovery raises hopes that drought-prone regions, such as Africa, will be more capable of feeding themselves in the future.

The research builds on the institute’s work to develop climate-ready rice, which found rice with fewer stomata used 40% less water than conventional breeds and was able to survive drought and temperatures of 40C.

In a separate study published in Plant, Cell and Environment, scientists at the institute also found that plants engineered to have fewer stomata are less susceptible to diseases. They hope to be able to replicate these findings in crops such as wheat and rice.