Plants remember droughts

As new research shows, plants use a signaling molecule known by animals to reduce water loss during dehydration. It gives them a kind of memory of just how dry the day was.

“I have researched how plants regulate water balance for more than 35 years. The fact that we have now unexpectedly come up with a completely new strategy to save water is one of the biggest surprises in my research life,” says Professor Rainer Heydrich, a botanist and biophysicist from the University of Julius Maximilian (JMU) Würzburg. Hedrich’s team discovered this new strategy with a team from the University of Adelaide in Australia. The results are published in Nature Communications.

How much GABA is as a stress memory

The post explains: Plants use the signaling molecule GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) to remember the drought that occurred in a day. The more dry it becomes, the more GABA builds up in plant tissues throughout the day. The next morning, the amount of GABA determines how well the plant opens the pores of its leaves. The width of these pores to open can limit water loss.

GABA is a signaling molecule that is also found in humans and animals: there is a substance that transmits the nervous system. Plants have neither neurons nor a brain. However, GABA now also appears in it for memory-like processes.

Lower water requirements, higher drought tolerance

The effect of GABA has been demonstrated in many arable crops, explains Professor Matthew Gillham of the University of Adelaide: “Under the influence of GABA, for example, barley, broad beans and soybeans close the pores of the leaves.” Laboratory plants that produce more GABA through mutations also react in this natural way. These mutants need less water in experiments and survive droughts longer.

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Science knows other signaling substances in plants, under whose influence the pores of the leaves close. But GABA relies on a completely different mechanism of action. This was explained by the first author of the publication, Dr. Bo Xu of the Australian Research Council Center of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology.

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