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Researchers find a food crisis solution — and it’s in your martini glass

By Hafsa Khalil, CNN

Many people in the northern hemisphere have spent the summer reaching for a boozy drink at the end of the day to take the edge off the scorching, dry heat. It turns out that a tipple may be just what plants need too.

A peer-reviewed study published Thursday in the journal Plant and Cell Physiology suggests that ethanol — or alcohol — can help plants survive in times of drought, even for as long as two weeks without water.

When plants are deprived of water, they naturally produce ethanol. Although the reasons for its production are unknown, it led researchers from the RIKEN Center for Sustainable Resource Science in Japan to theorize that giving alcohol to plants may protect them from dying in a drought.

“The discovery came from the process of searching for compounds that make plants resistant to stress,” Motoaki Seki, the study’s lead author told CNN.

The findings are not just useful for the world’s gardens, but also for farms growing vital crops like rice and wheat. Drought-proofing staple crops could help alleviate food insecurity, which is an issue affecting many parts of the world right now, exacerbated by heat waves, Russia’s war in Ukraine and supply chain issues.

The researchers said that ethanol was a “useful and simple” way to increase food production all over the world in times of drought or water scarcity.

To come up with their findings, the researchers grew wheat and rice plants, regularly watering them, and then added ethanol to the soil in one group of plants over three days. They then deprived both groups of water for two weeks and found that drunk plants fared better than sober ones. Around 75% of the ethanol-treated wheat and rice plants survived after rewatering, while less than 5% of the untreated plants did.

“[The] external application of ethanol to plants would be a useful, simple and less expensive agricultural method to enhance drought tolerance in various plants,” Seki said, as genetic modification of plants would not be needed.

But, he warned that the ethanol needed to be used sparingly, as “higher concentration of ethanol inhibits plant growth.” In other words, don’t try this at home.

The study also looked at how ethanol protects a plant. Using arabidopsis, a small plant commonly used in experiments, the researchers discovered that when ethanol-treated specimens were deprived of water, tiny openings on the leaves surface called stomata, closed up, retaining water and heat.

Seki and his colleagues studied arabidopsis‘ gene expression and found that the ethanol-treated plants started behaving as if they were experiencing drought, even before they were actually deprived of water.

This gene expression gives the plants a head start in preparing for a drought, Seki explained, adding that the ethanol is also used by plants to make the sugars needed to produce energy.

Seki told CNN that he and his team will soon begin testing ethanol on plants in real fields.

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