Sowing the seeds of resurrection

26 March 2014

Can some inconspicuous Australian grasses be the key to improving crop drought tolerance?

They might look inconspicuous, but some little wildflowers and grasses - known as “resurrection plants”- look set to pull a mighty agricultural punch in the face of climate change.

Deakin’s Professor of Sustainable Agricultural Systems, John Hamill, is undertaking ground-breaking research that involves introducing genetic information from such drought-tolerant grasses into a plant that is closely related to oil seed crops, such as canola.

Resurrection plants grow in different forms in various parts of the world. In Australia they are found in natural rocky outcrops in places like the You Yangs and Grampians. They have evolved a special feature that allows them to go completely dry and still survive.

This ability is known as “desiccation tolerance” and is a characteristic normally only associated with seeds. In fact, seeds can remain alive in a dried state for hundreds of years. Some ancient seeds have been taken out of pharaohs’ tombs, where they have lain for 3000 years, then planted and grown.

“Each seed is an individual plant all neatly packed up and ready to go. All it needs is water,” said Professor Hamill. “A few plants have been able to re-activate this universal mechanism of seeds, so their leaves and roots can survive without water. They grow a bit, then they dry out, then they grow a bit and so on.”

Professor Hamill is working with colleagues from Monash University and will be seeking financial support from public funding agencies such as the Grains Research Development Council for this project.

His research is the first step in a project that could see the same material being used in a wide number of plants that are used in dry-land agriculture, such as canola, chickpeas, lupins, fava beans, safflowers, linseed etc. Improved drought tolerance would require less irrigation, thus reducing costs and salt build-up in soil.

If all goes as planned, the new seeds could be available for testing in a field situation within three to four years.

Originally from Belfast, Professor Hamill recently moved to Geelong to work within Deakin’s new Centre for Regional and Rural Futures (CeRRF), which focusses on developing innovations that benefit rural communities.

“One of the challenges is to produce crops that are able to cope with increased drought and stress, which are likely to become even bigger problems with climate change,” Professor Hamill said. “A new report by the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO predicts more extreme heat across large parts of the country.”

“We are not trying to produce plants that grow in the desert, but we are trying to increase the chances of crops giving a good yield. For instance, if a crop is growing in a marginal area, instead of getting one good crop every four years, we are aiming to get three good years in four.”

Professor Hamill is also involved in the state-of-the-art Teri-Deakin Nanobiotechnology Research Centre, located in India, which focusses on sustainable agricultural practices and food security in changing climates.

Plant genetics has developed tremendously over the past 30 years. Scientists now consider plants as part of an integrated system, taking account of biology, chemistry, microbiology, and even engineering and physics, in their research approach.

“We try to use what nature has given us and extend it. It is what humans have always done. We are using what exists in nature for the sustainability of the environment.”

Professor John Hamill Professor John Hamill

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