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Food & Drink

Scientists discover why this drought-proof ‘super plant’ keeps growing and growing

Scientists have learned the secret to its success.



(Verdolaga via Wikimedia Commons)

By Mark Waghorn via SWNS

A drought-proof weed may hold the key to feeding the world, according to new research.

The 'super plant' harbors two evolutionary adaptations that make it resistant to climate change.

It opens the door to engineering hardier crops. The global population will reach almost ten billion by 2050.

Portulaca oleracea, commonly known as purslane, is difficult to control. It can burst back to life even after you think you have killed it - much like a zombie.

Now scientists have discovered the secret to its success — interactive genes that increase productivity even in parched deserts.

Senior author Professor Erika Edwards, of Yale University in Connecticut, said: "This is a very rare combination of traits and has created a kind of 'super plant' - one that could be potentially useful in endeavors such as crop engineering."

Plants have independently evolved a variety of distinct mechanisms to improve photosynthesis - the process by which they convert sunlight into nutrients.

Corn and sugarcane, for instance, use a pathway called C4 which is effective under high temperatures.

Succulents like cacti possess another type known as CAM. It works best in very arid regions with little water.

They serve different functions and purslane has both - making it unique in the plant world.

What is more, spatial analysis scans showed the genes operate together within leaf cells instead of independently.

(ZooFari via Wikimeida Commons)

Products of CAM reactions are processed by the C4 chemicals - providing unusual levels of protection for a plant in times of drought.

The US team also built a metabolic model that mirrored the system revealed in experiments.

It is hoped understanding how the pathway works will lead to the development of corn, rice, wheat and other staple crops that can thrive in challenging decades ahead.

Added Edwards: "In terms of engineering a CAM cycle into a C4 crop, such as maize, there is still a lot of work to do before that could become a reality.

"But what we have shown is the two pathways can be efficiently integrated and share products.

"C4 and CAM are more compatible than we had thought, which leads us to suspect there are many more C4+CAM species out there, waiting to be discovered.”

To feed growing populations we must produce more food in the next 30 years than we have done since the dawn of agriculture - 8,000 years ago.

Already 40 percent of the planet's land surface is used for farming. Most crops use the C3 pathway - which binds three carbon atoms from the air.

The C4 pathway uses less water. The plants' pores need to be open for a shorter to receive carbon dioxide.

There is less opportunity to leak water - making it ideal for increasingly prevalent droughts owing to climate change.

Scientists are already trying to genetically manipulate C3 crops into C4s. Adding CAM would be the 'holy grail'.

Purslane is also a herb and tastes similar to spinach or watercress. It can be added to salads. It is native to Asia but has spread all over the world.

Sometimes called duckweed or little hogweed, it is loaded with nutrients including omega-3 fatty acids, which are rarely found in plants, and a long list of vitamins and minerals.

The findings are in the journal Science Advances.

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