A breakthrough by scientists at a North East university could help reverse the global food shortage facing millions of families in developing countries.
A team of experts led by Dr Ari Sadanandom at Durham University has discovered a natural mechanism in plants that could stimulate crop growth even in the harshest of climates.
Plants slow their growth or stop growing altogether in response to adverse conditions, such as water shortage, in order to save energy.
They do this by making proteins that hold back the growth of the plant. This process is reversed when plants produce a hormone called Gibberellin which breaks down the proteins that stifle growth.
This can be crippling for farmers, especially in changeable climates like Africa and central Asia, where more than 50% of the world’s staple diet of rice is grown.
The research team, led by the Durham Centre for Crop Improvement Technology, has discovered that plants have the natural ability to regulate their growth during times of environmental stress.
Dr Sadanandom, who hails originally from Singapore, said the find could be an important aid for developing countries and is a project close to his heart.
He said: “What we have found is a molecular mechanism in plants which stabilises the levels of specific proteins that restrict growth in changing environmental conditions.
“If you are a farmer in the field then you don’t want your wheat to stop growing whenever it is faced with adverse conditions.
“The research is being trialled in the US, Germany and UK and we’re currently looking to work with several industry partners who are interested in our find.
“Durham was chosen to lead this UK Government-funded project because the university has a very strong plant group, thanks to Durham botanist David Bellamy.
“If we can encourage crops to keep growing, even in the most adverse conditions, it could lead to sustainable food production that will meet the demands on the planet’s limited resources.”
The research team included experts from the University of Nottingham, Rothamsted Research and the University of Warwick and was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.
The research was carried out on thale cress – a model for plant research – but scientists say the mechanism they have found also exists in crops such as barley, corn, rice and wheat.
“Three quarters of the world’s population eat rice,” Dr Sadanandom. “Hopefully we can adapt this find to help millions of farmers worldwide and make a real difference to the food crisis facing many third-world countries.”