ANU biologists have found a new way to help plants survive drought by enhancing their natural ability to conserve water.
The research team mapped the chemical signals used by plants to close the pores on their leaves and restrict water loss in drought conditions.
The study, published their research in eLIFE, found chloroplasts in cells surrounding the pores on leaves, called stomata, can sense drought stress and thereby activate a chemical signal that closes stomata to conserve water.
By enhancing the chloroplast signal on plants used in the experiments, barley and a small native weed called Aradbidopsis, researchers found they survived 50 per cent longer in drought conditions.
The research team, led by Dr Wannarat Pornsiriwong, Dr Gonzalo Estavillo, Dr Kai Chan and Dr Barry Pogson, hope the research leads to benefits for major crops such as barley, rice and wheat, which are crucial to world food supplies.
"This basic scientific research has the potential to be able to improve farming productivity not just in Australia, but potentially in other countries that suffer from drought stress," Dr Pogson said.
"If we can even alleviate drought stress a little it would have a significant impact on our farmers and the economy."
Dr Chan said boosting the chloroplast signal, by breeding, genetic or agronomic strategies, could be the key to boosting drought tolerance.
Dr Pornsiriwong has started her own research lab in Thailand to investigate breeding strategies to naturally enhance chloroplast signal in rice.
The research collaboration between ANU, the University of Adelaide, Western Sydney University, CSIRO, Kasertsart University in Thailand and the University of California San Diego, was funded by the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology.