How will the world – and Africa in particular – feed its increasing population in the era of climate change? July 2023 has officially been declared the hottest July in the recorded history of the world. I know that sounds absurd if you live in the Overstrand where the weather has been unusually cold and wet. But elsewhere in the world temperatures have soared. We know that climate change is responsible for more extremes in weather – hotter or colder, wetter or drier. It is predicted, for example, that the Western Cape will be subject to hotter and drier summers with extended drought conditions. According to the UN Environment Programme, climate change could reduce maize yields across southern Africa by as much as 30% by 2030.
It is therefore imperative that we develop food crops that can withstand the increasingly harsh conditions. Prof Jill Farrant is one of the leading scientists working on the quest for drought-resistant crops. Whale Coast Conservation is therefore delighted and privileged to host Prof Farrant on Thursday 17 August at 17h30 at the Green House in Vermont. She will talk on “Resurrection Plants: Models for future food security in the era of climate change”.
So-called resurrection plants have in the past been seen as botanical curiosities. Now they are at the centre of new research to develop crops to feed the world.
Below is an extract from an article on the resurrection bush published in the Village News in November 2022:
The amazing resurrection bush Myrothamnus flabellifolia, (‘opstandingsplant’ in Afrikaans), occurs naturally in the northern half of South Africa (Limpopo, North-West, Gauteng, Mpumalanga and Kwa-
Zulu Natal), as well as in other parts of southern Africa (Namibia, Zimbabwe, Kenya and Malawi).
The botanical name comes from the Greek: myron means ‘perfume’ and thamnus, means ‘bush’, and flabellifolia means ‘with fan-like leaves’.
Despite this appropriate name, it’s not often seen in leaf and the fan-like leaves are seldom seen. This is because this plant has the amazing ability to dry out (losing up to 95% of its water) and appear to be dead when water is scarce and temperatures are high. However, it’s not dead, only dormant.
The resurrection bush has evolved to occupy a very inhospitable niche habitat. It grows in hot areas, in very shallow soils on rock slopes. The extensive roots grow into the cracks and fissures in the rock where water drains when it rains.
Its native habitat in Southern Africa suffers frequent droughts, so the plant looks like a stack of dead sticks most of the time. However, it is so well adapted to these periods of drought that it can magically spring into life within hours of rain falling.
The fan-like leaves unfurl and become green again, and resume normal metabolism, including photosynthesis.
Photo: UCT News
The biochemistry of life is critically dependent on stable cellular structures and their associated proteins such as enzymes and other metabolites.
It is mind-boggling that all the plant’s cell membranes and vital life-supporting molecules are undamaged by severe desiccation.
It is so remarkable, in fact, that M. flabellifolia is one of the very few woody vascular plants to have evolved the ability to resurrect, even after three years of dormancy.
Resurrected bush – Photo: La Plumeria
What does this plant have that protects the integrity of its cells during extreme desiccation? Prof Farrant, who is professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of Cape Town has been studying it over many years to find out.
“What makes resurrection plants in general – and M. flabellifolia in particular – so special,” she explains, “is the remarkable toolbox of chemicals they use to survive the extreme water loss and heat that would kill any other plant”. What are these tools and can they be activated in food crops?
The race is now on for researchers to produce new varieties of food plants in which the endogenous “resurrection genes” are activated in every part of the plant upon dehydration. These drought-tolerant crops might ensure a reliable food source in those territories where increasingly frequent poor rainy seasons could have severe social and economic consequences.
Join Whale Coast Conservation on 17 August to hear the answers first hand from Prof Farrant.