Getting Plants ‘Drunk’ Insulates them Against Drought, According to New Research

Main crop plants thrived when their soil was soaked in ethanol alcohols even after two weeks without water, report scientists.

Climate change may be affecting production of corn and wheat by 2030, and scientists believe the solution is learn more about plants’ biology to find inbuilt resiliencies.

Genetically modifying plants so that their stomata—the pores in their leaves—stay closed, has been somewhat effective because it prevents water from leaving the plants. Other experiments have looked at making plants produce larger root systems.

But making them is expensive and time consuming. Countries with the greatest need might not have equal access to these modified crops if droughts continue at their current severity.

Plants produce ethanol when deprived of water, so a team from the RIKEN Centre for Sustainable Resource Science in Japan reasoned it would protect them from future drought.

“We find treating common crops such as wheat and rice with exogenous ethanol can increase production during drought,” said lead study author Dr. Motoaki Seki. “This offers us a cheap and easy way to increase crop yield even when water is limited, without the need for genetic modification.”

Ethanol is neat alcohol. A small amount of the chemical is the same as a large number of normal alcoholic beverages.

In people, immediate effects include nausea, vomiting and intoxication. In large quantities, it can cause almost immediate loss of consciousness.

Compared to water, wheat and rice could only survive a fortnight of drought conditions when they did a bit of pre-game with 3% ethanol.

And it wasn’t even close. 75% of ethanol-treated wheat and rice plants survived after they were re-watered at the end of the fortnite, compared to less than 5% of the untreated plants.

The researchers analyzed gene expression in the plants before and during water deprivation and radio-tagged the ethanol before pretreatment.

This allowed them to see what processes were activated during drought and what happened to the ethanol after it was taken up by the plant roots.

Even before water was deprived, the ethanol-treated plants began to express genes that are normally expressed during water deprivation.

Additionally, around the same time that water content was dropping in untreated leaves, the ethanol-treated plants were making sugars from the ethanol and doing photosynthesis.

“First, drought-related genes are expressed even before water is missing, giving the plants a head start in preparation,” explained Dr. Seki.

“Then, the stomata close, allowing leaves to retain more water. At the same time, some of the ethanol is used to make a variety of sugars, which provide much needed energy that is normally difficult to get with closed stomata.”

“As ethanol is safe, cheap, and widely available, this finding offers a practical way to increase food production all over the world when water is scarce, without the need for costly, time-consuming, and sometimes controversial production of genetically modified plants.”