Super plants for greener future

12 August 2002
ACCORDING to Professor Jennifer Thomson of the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology, lack of water is going to be the single most damaging environmental impact on Africa in the next decade. "I would not be surprised if wars are fought over water in Sub-Saharan Africa, it is going to be that critical. If we do not do something about improving the drought tolerance of staple crops, people will starve."

Thomson, along with Dr Sagadevan Mundree and Associate Professor Jill Farrant, heads a team of researchers who are identifying and extracting genes from a plant known to survive harsh drought conditions, and transferring those genes into some of Africa's staple food crops.

"Dr Mundree devised a novel method of identifying genes that are functionally important in drought tolerance. So we are working on putting those genes into crops such as maize and then studying the physiology of the plant in response to the genes.

"The plant we are working with is Xerophyta viscosa; it lives in cracks in rocks where there is very little soil so it can dry out very easily and it can tolerate a significant loss of water," explains Thomson.

Thomson says X. viscosa was an obvious choice to use because it can dry out to a low water content of about five percent, and if water is added the plant resurrects within 72 hours. "We call them resurrection plants and there are many of them that are indigenous to Africa," she elaborates.

The research is funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, who are particularly keen that this technology be available to small-scale farmers. "We will have to work through governments and agricultural departments in maize-growing countries to work out the best way that they could take responsibility for the bio-safety regulations.

"The work that we are doing is critical to commercial farmers and small scale farmers because very often what happens is, though there might be enough food in a region, it does not get to people in rural areas in time because of the lack of infrastructure and roads."

There are various other studies being conducted in South Africa around genetically modified foods (GMF) like sugar cane, grapevines, yeasts involved in producing wines, fruit trees and sorghum. The University Science, Humanities and Engineering Partners in Africa programme (USHEPiA), is being expanded into regional research programmes that will examine agricultural biotechnology for food security among other things.

"These projects will focus on tissue culture and field work analysis. What is important about this is that there are no other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa that are capable of producing transgenic plants, so USHEPiA fellows will be able to generate the plants in South Africa and then study them back home. In fact we are in the process of finalising a programme with the Jomo Kenyatta University in Nairobi, which is very exciting."

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