Wildlife & Biodiversity

How plants breathe and how that can help humans

Scientists find how humans shaped plants’ breathing mechanism, which could help develop more drought-resistant crops

By DTE Staff
Published: Thursday 27 June 2019
Photo: Getty Images

That plants breathe has been known since the 19th century. Now, the mechanism behind that has also been discovered, which could pave the way for developing more drought-resistant crops.

Leaves have pores — called stomata — and contain an intricate internal network of air channels. The channels act like bronchioles – the tiny passages that carry air to the exchange surfaces of human and animal lungs.

Using genetic manipulation techniques, scientists at the United Kingdom’s University of Sheffield showed that the movement of carbon dioxide through the pores most likely determines the shape and scale of the air channel network.

They also found that the more stomata a leaf has, the more air space it forms.

The study also showed that wheat plants have been bred by generations of people to have fewer pores on their leaves and fewer air channels, which makes their leaves denser and allows them to be grown with less water.

This new insight offers the potential for scientists to make staple crops like wheat even more water-efficient by altering the internal structure of their leaves.

In fact, the Institute for Sustainable Food at the University of Sheffield, where the scientists work, have already developed climate-ready rice and wheat which can survive extreme drought conditions.

The scientists, along with colleagues from the University of Nottingham and Lancaster University used a set of experiments involving X-ray CT image analyses.

Until recently, the application of X-ray CT, or CAT scanning, in plant sciences has mainly been focused on visualising the hidden half of the plant — the roots — as they grow in soil. 

The scientists also experimented with very different leaf structures. 

The study was published in Nature Communications.

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