A flood can ruin a potato harvest in just 24 hours. However, by understanding the plant’s defense mechanisms against flooding, it is possible to create more crop-resistant crops that can withstand flooding. An international research team with the participation of lecturer Kim Hebelstrup from the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics, University of Aarhus, is working to make plants “watertight”. It will make a difference to the world in terms of ensuring the future supply of food.

The UN Climate Panel, IPCC estimates that global warming increases the risk of extreme weather. That is more drought, more heat waves, heavy rainfall and greater risk of flooding. It is a major problem for agriculture. Like humans, plants need oxygen to survive, and they can’t get it if they’re underwater. Floods can therefore be at least as damaging to the crops as e.g. drought.

The research team has discovered that some plants quickly become aware that they are underwater when flooded, and that they can therefore quickly initiate some rescue mechanisms to avoid damage. The research team explains how plants use ethylene as a signal to trigger survival reactions underwater. Ethylene is a plant hormone that affects, among other things, processes around leaf, bud and fruit drop, aging, stem growth, root formation and maturation. Stress impacts naturally increase the ethylene production of plants. Identifying the plant genes that trigger such a mechanism could potentially pave the way for crops that will not only be resistant to stress, but may even be flood-resistant.

Quick reactions

“When plants find that they are flooded, they can initiate some processes that increase their chances of survival. They form ethylene, and we have discovered that it activates the formation of hemoglobin, ”says Associate Professor Kim Hebelstrup. He agreed to become part of the research team as he has been investigating the function of hemoglobin in plants all the way back from his PhD studies. Hemoglobin is usually something found in animals and humans. It is found in the blood and carries oxygen from the lungs to the organs.

“It has been found that the hemoglobin in plants plays a different role. Namely, ethylene activates hemoglobin formation in the plant. In the plant, it does not carry oxygen, but breaks down a signal gas called nitrogen monoxide (NO). And it is the reaction that activates the survival mechanism that makes the plants flood-resistant, ”explains Kim Hebelstrup.

The research team has published an article in Nature Communications describing a number of molecular events that are triggered in plants by flooding. They show that an accumulation of ethylene via hemoglobin in flooded plants triggers the survival response at an earlier stage, even before the oxygen level in the field actually decreases. “It is very useful because a plant that goes into survival mode early will be able to survive underwater for a long time,” explains Kim Hebelstrup.  

The future crops

The discovery offers great potential for the development of flood-resistant crops. “Now that we have characterized the survival mechanism, we have the opportunity to work on selecting and breeding varieties of crops that are proficient in using the survival mechanism,” said Kim Hebelstrup, who says that the work will continue. “This will make it possible in the future to produce crops that can more easily withstand floods.”