Biologists Discover a Way to Make Plants Waterproof

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Biologists Discover a Way to Make Plants Waterproof

According to the Proven Winners, drowning can happen to plants no matter how thirsty they may be / Photo by amenic181 via Shutterstock


Climate change has adverse effects that are not limited to droughts and heatwaves. Heavy rains and flash floods are now attributed to climate change. A team of scientists researched on what plants do to avoid drowning. They discovered that some plants simply become waterproof.

The discovery of the waterproof mechanism in plants was led by scientists at Utrecht University, one of the oldest universities in the Netherlands. Their findings unveiled biological processes in certain plants that prevent them from drowning. They published the results in the peer-reviewed journal, Nature Communications.

Can Plants Drown from Too Much Water?

Water is an essential element for plants to grow and survive. Whether from the desert or from the coldest regions, all plants need a sufficient amount of water to live and bloom. However, certain plants can survive dry spells longer than other species, like the cactus, for example. Unlike most other plants, the cactus lacks leaves that substantially reduce the evaporation of water from itself. As such, the plant can live up to two years without being watered.

According to the Proven Winners, a leading brand of plants, drowning can happen to plants, no matter how thirsty they may be. In fact, plants can die faster from getting soaked than from becoming dry. This is why gardening experts recommend that people should correctly water their plants by checking how wet the soil is. Plants that are drowning usually show wilted leaves while its soil is wet or filled with water.

The reason why plants die from over-watering is the blockage in their roots. As they grow or adjust in the soil after transplant, plants establish their roots for several days to weeks. Excessive amounts of water in the soil will leave no space for air pockets, which plant roots retrieve to breathe. Once the roots are deprived of air, they become stressed and more prone to illnesses. Thus, over-watering leads to drowning and eventual death of plants.

Certain Plants Found with Waterproof Mechanisms

At Utrecht University, biologists identified a way to prevent plants from drowning. This method could be helpful in preserving plant life where heavy downpours and flash floods often occur. The secret of the anti-drowning mechanism was found in the genes of some plant species. If manipulated, the genes activate quickly in preserving plant life in extreme floods.

"If plants can quickly detect that they are flooded, they can initiate processes that increase their chances of survival. One strategy, for example, is the so-called snorkel response, in which leaves and stems increase upward growth to emerge from the water and restore contact with air. Another strategy is to suppress growth and metabolism in order to minimize oxygen and energy consumption until the floods recede," explained Sjon Hartman, the first author of the study and a plant biologist.

Hartman added that adjustments to particular plant genes could compel plants to move their prone parts upward. The method also covered the aforementioned oxygen deprivation in drowning. Alterations in plant genes could assist in lowering oxygen consumption so the roots would last longer in floods.

The reason why plants die from over-watering is the blockage in their roots / Photo by amenic181 via Shutterstock


The genes in this study were analyzed in Arabidopsis thaliana plant, also known as thale cress. Scientists observed that the stability of the ERFVII transcription could be influenced by oxygen and nitric oxide changes. An increase in water level triggered the transcription to send signals to other genes about submergence. Other genes would respond to alert a drowning plant to avoid hypoxia or oxygen deprivation.

Scientists performed experiments to speed up the process and stability of the biological process. By using an ethylene-mediated nitric oxide depletion, they boosted the reaction of the plant that automatically initiated the alert for hypoxia. The plant pre-adapted earlier to ensure its survival against the limited amount of oxygen. The experiment could be applied in other settings where oxygen is insufficient like floods.

The ethylene demonstrated how it triggered the hypoxia signal. As a gaseous hormone, ethylene worked by enhancing the ERFVII stability before hypoxia can happen. The plant entered its preservation status even if the oxygen levels were still stable. Aside from ethylene, two other gaseous signals were correlated to the anti-drowning mechanism.

Through biotechnology, the genes could be introduced to plants that lack them. These would make them tougher during the flood season. However, the application of the genes would require further testing to determine unfavorable effects, especially in plants that produce edible products.

Rising climate-related disasters

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations revealed that climate-related disasters rose from 149 in the period 1980-1990 to 332 between 2004 and 2014. That resulted in the exponential increase of economic damage from $14 billion annually, between 1980 and 1990, to $100 billion between 2004 and 2014.

From 2003 to 2013, the global agricultural sector absorbed a large percentage of climate-related disaster damages and losses. In damages, the sector had a total of 17 percent while for losses, the figure stood at 31. Crops were noted to be the most affected by floods and storms, with 59.1 percent of them being destroyed, compared to the 8.6 percent in livestock, 31.3 percent in aquaculture, and 5.3 percent in forestry.



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