Sunday, Dec 15, 2019 | Last Update : 11:47 AM IST

‘Resurrection plants’ offer hope as climate hostile

Published : Nov 24, 2015, 6:25 am IST
Updated : Nov 24, 2015, 6:25 am IST

As the race to adapt to climate change quickens, a South African scientist is leading global research into developing crops that mimic the extraordinary survival skills of “resurrection plants”.

As the race to adapt to climate change quickens, a South African scientist is leading global research into developing crops that mimic the extraordinary survival skills of “resurrection plants”.

Jill Farrant, a professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of Cape Town, hopes that unlocking the genetic codes of drought-tolerant plants could help farmers toiling in increasingly hot and dry conditions.

With more than 130 known varieties in the world, resurrection plants are a unique group of flora that can survive extreme water shortages for years.

During a drought, the plant acts like a seed, becoming so dry it appears dead.

But when the skies finally open and the rain pours down, the shrivelled plant bursts “back to life”, turning green and robust in just a few hours.

“I want to cater to the subsistence farmer, the person who wants to make enough food to live,” Farina, 55, said.

“Farmers are becoming more and more dispirited, and droughts are killing them.”

Perhaps the most well-known resurrection plant is Myrothamnus flabellifolius, which makes antioxidant chemicals to protect it during dry spells and is used in fashion designer Giorgio Armani’s cosmetics line.

A farmer’s daughter, Farina recalls stumbling across a resurrection plant as a nine-year-old and being amazed at its seemingly immortal properties.

“I wrote in my diary about a plant that had died and came back after the rain,” she said.

She returned to the subject professionally in 1994, and has since become the world’s leading expert in her field.

Environmentalists fear that more and more of Africa will be reduced to a dust bowl by global warming, with higher temperatures, reduced water supplies and population growth threatening to trigger worsening famines.

Climate change could reduce maize yields across southern Africa by as much as 30 percent by 2030, according to the UN Environment Programme.

Ahead of the United Nations conference in Paris at the end of November, countries are facing growing pressure to keep global warming below 2°C above pre-Industrial Revolution levels by weaning their carbon-hungry societies off fossil fuels.

Location: South Africa, Gauteng, Johannesburg