Wheat plants engineered to have fewer microscopic pores — called stomata — on their leaves are better able to survive drought conditions associated with climate breakdown, according to a new study. Scientists at the University of Sheffield’s Institute for Sustainable Food in the UK found that engineering bread wheat to have fewer stomata helps the crop to use water more efficiently while maintaining yields.
Like most plants, wheat uses stomata to regulate its intake of carbon dioxide for photosynthesis as well as the release of water vapour. When water is plentiful, stomatal opening helps plants to regulate temperature by evaporative cooling — similar to sweating. In drought conditions, wheat plants normally close their stomata to slow down water loss — but wheat with fewer stomata has been found to conserve water even better, and can use that water to cool itself. During the study, published in the Journal of Experimental Botany, the scientists grew wheat in conditions similar to those expected under climate breakdown — with higher levels of carbon dioxide and less water. Compared to conventional wheat, the engineered plants used less water while maintaining photosynthesis and yield.
Julie Gray, professor of plant molecular biology at the Institute for Sustainable Food, said, “Developing wheat that uses water more efficiently will help us to feed our growing population while using fewer natural resources — making our food systems more resilient in the face of climate breakdown.”