27 October 1998
For immediate release
As the implications of global warming make the peril of drought an ever-present problem, we increasingly turn to science as a solution. So far, science has drawn a blank - but the work of a Sussex University D. Phil student may go some way towards changing that.
Michelle Norwood has been investigating a plant species which can go without water for more than a year, losing 98% of its water content, and then be rejuvenated within 24 hours. Within a week, the plant will be blooming with purple flowers. The species, Craterostigma plantigineum, is a 'resurrection' plant; one of a family of plants which can remain alive without water and rejuvenate rapidly with seemingly no damage.
Typically from the arid areas of South Africa, these plants have adapted to desert-like conditions of zero water for long periods, followed by submersion in monsoons. There are around thirty known resurrection species, including grasses and ferns, and all of them are special because of the way the mature foliage - the leaves, not the seeds - can reconstitute itself. This goes against the common wisdom of botanical science, since the plant cannot be dead when it has withered away, and yet it doesn't appear to photosynthesise. As Michelle points out, her plants "look totally dead but I know they're alive."
What makes the plant Michelle is investigating so exceptional is a sugar it contains called octulose - something which hasn't been found in any other plant. Octulose is produced in the plant's hydrated state, and when the plant begins to dry out, it is converted into sucrose - ordinary, household sugar - which protects the tissues of the plant from the shrinkage which caused by drought and the expansion which follows contact with water. The conversion of octulose into sucrose makes the plants virtually indestructible; as Michelle says, no matter what she has subjected her plants to "none of them have ever died on me yet".
What is most amazing about the plant is not only what it does, but what it may be used for. Isolating the gene which enables the plant to resist such harsh conditions could mean that going away on holiday and leaving your plants behind for several weeks wouldn't do them any harm at all. But more importantly, it could ensure that the footage of swathes of withered crops following droughts all over the world will never be seen on our TV screens again. In the midst of all the controversy over genetic engineering, the tiny Craterostigma plantagineum could have a massive part to play.
For further information please contact Sally Hall, Information Office, University of Sussex, Tel. 01273 678888, Fax 01273 678335, email email@example.com, Michelle Norwood, School of Biological Sciences, University of Sussex, Tel. 01273 606 775 ext 7277 or 2702, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or Peter Scott, School of Biological Sciences, Tel. 01273 678056.