A group of University researchers led by John Cushman, professor and director of the graduate program in biochemistry and molecular biology, recently received a competitive National Research Initiative grant from the United States Department of Agriculture. The group, including lead researchers from the University of Missouri, Columbia, was awarded $450,000 for a three-year project on resurrection plants.
Resurrection plants, unlike most vascular plants, can undergo complete drying of leaf tissues, also known as desiccation, and still be revived with water. Instead of dying when dried, the plants go into a state of suspended animation in which cells are preserved and come back to life or "resurrect" when the plants are watered, Cushman said.
According to Cushman, under similar conditions, the vast majority of plants would die. This unique characteristic makes these plants extremely interesting, important and deserving of further research.
"This trait is incredibly rare, but evolutionary-widespread in the higher plant kingdom," Cushman said. "Only 0.2 percent or 350 species of vascular plants are resurrection plants."
Along with the ability to undergo desiccation, resurrection plants have a higher capacity to cope with severe drought conditions and can often survive with very little water.
The group hopes to discover what key genes are involved in enabling these plants to survive desiccation as well as be more drought tolerant.
Cushman hopes that uncovering the unique features of resurrection plants will one day enable scientists to replicate these traits in agronomically important crops grown in states like Nevada, which have limited water resources.
"Crop plants could be developed to be more drought-tolerant," Cushman said. "They would be able to survive with a lot less water."
The ability to manufacture crop plants that express traits found in resurrection plants would be an important asset to agriculture in Nevada, where droughts are common and the most widely planted crop, alfalfa, has a high demand for water, Cushman said.
In order to discern more information about these rare plants, individual genes believed to be crucial to the preservation of the resurrection plants in the process of dehydration and hydration, are isolated.
The plants are then tested individually in the lab using a rapidly growing model plant known as mouse-eared cress.
The genes are being tested from a club moss and an African Inselberg grass, both of which are resurrection plants.
Distinguishing individually which genes take any effect, though a tedious task, is necessary to understand the secrets of resurrection plants.
"These plants have a potential use for agriculture," Cushman said. "We need to understand them at molecular, genetic and functional levels."