Henk Hilhorst is taking part in the Fundamental Change Campaign of the Wageningen University Fund with the following project:
Making crops resistant to long droughts and never again seeing a crop fail
Drought has long been considered the single greatest threat to world agriculture and in the coming decades this is likely to be exacerbated by the effects of global climate change. Thus, it is becoming imperative that alternative strategies be developed for crop production under extreme environmental conditions. Currently, cereals (particularly wheat, maize and rice) form 90% of world food supplies and such crops, being annuals, rely predominantly on mechanisms that retain water and are inherently intolerant of much loss thereof. Attempts at producing crops with shortened growing periods and improved resistance to water deficit stress have met with only partial success. When exposed to severe and prolonged droughts, water deficit stress is inevitable and such crops ultimately fail.
The present project proposes a radically different approach to designing drought tolerant crops. We will make use of the fact that our drought-sensitive crops contain the genetic information to confer desiccation tolerance to vegetative tissues, as it does to seeds. We will identify the regulatory mechanisms used by resurrection plants to activate these genes in their vegetative tissues and utilize this understanding to “unlock” the same ability in current crops. In this sense, we propose to ‘repeat’ the evolutionary step that enabled vegetative desiccation tolerance in resurrection plants, in the first instance, within modern crops. The practical implications of such ‘redesigning’ of crops are huge. It not only means that our current crop production fields can be used well into the next 50 years, in which we expect more frequent and more severe periods of drought, but we may also expand our area of arable land into the more marginal (drier) regions of the world.
The time is now right to take up this challenge. The need for drought tolerant crops is increasingly imminent and is particularly relevant to many developing countries where agriculture is predominantly rain fed.
Initiatives by Wageningen-UR (Dr Henk Hilhorst, seed expert) and the University of Cape Town (Prof Jill Farrant, expert on resurrection plants) are now being taken to build a consortium of experts with differing but appropriate technological expertise in the fields of plant science, agriculture and biotechnology in order to generate such desirable crops in a not too distant future.
Prof Jill Farrant is subject to high-profile public exposure concerning the potential solution to a big problem in food supply, as described above. She would be the ideal ‘voice and face’ for the present project in case of international profiling of the project:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CXbSoEF3xb0 for her Tedx talk from September, 2015; http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20151220-could-resurrection-plants-be-the-future-of-food for a short BBC Doc from December 2015. A Ted Global talk has been recorded recently but is not out yet.