A peer-reviewed study published Thursday in the journal Plant and Cell Physiology suggests that ethanol — or alcohol — can help plants survive times of drought, even for two weeks without water.
When plants are deprived of water, they naturally produce ethanol. Although the reasons for its production are unknown, it has led researchers from the RIKEN Center for Sustainable Resource Science in Japan to theorize that giving plants alcohol may protect them from dying in drought.
“The discovery came from a process of searching for compounds that make plants resistant to stress,” Motoaki Seki, lead author of the study told CNN.
The researchers said ethanol was a “useful and simple” way to increase food production around the world in times of drought or water scarcity.
To arrive at their findings, the researchers planted wheat and rice plants, watered them regularly, and then added ethanol to the soil in one group of plants over the course of three days. Then they deprived both groups of water for two weeks and found that the fermented plants fare better than the sober ones. About 75% of the ethanol-treated wheat and rice plants survived after re-irrigation, while less than 5% of the untreated plants survived.
“[The] External application of ethanol to plants would be a useful, simple and less expensive agricultural method to enhance drought tolerance in various plants,” said Seki, since no genetic modification of plants would be required.
But he cautioned that ethanol should be used in moderation, because “a high concentration of ethanol inhibits plant growth.” In other words, don’t try it at home.
The study also looked at how ethanol protected the plant. Use Arabidopsisa small plant commonly used in experiments, the researchers discovered that when ethanol-treated specimens were deprived of water, tiny openings on the surface of leaves called stomata, closed, retaining water and heat.
Seki and colleagues’ lesson Arabidopsis‘He found that plants treated with ethanol started behaving as if they were dehydrated, even before they were actually deprived of water.
This gene expression gives plants a head start in preparing for drought, Seki explained, adding that ethanol is also used by plants to make sugars needed for energy production.
Seki told CNN that he and his team will soon begin testing ethanol on plants in real fields.