A Conversation With Molecular Physiologist Jill Farrant
Jill Farrant is a Professor at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and an expert in building our understanding of plants’ stress response to lack of water—and how it connects to our future on planet Earth.
What is the ultimate goal of your work?
The ultimate goal of my work is to apply what we know in order to produce drought-tolerant crops. In the near term, this would improve food security for Africa. Ultimately, it could be valuable anywhere in the world that experiences severe extended droughts—which unfortunately are predicted to prevail as a consequence of climate change.
How could a plant be the key to producing food security in a drought?
What drew you into this particular line of work and focus? Why does it feel so important, especially today?
Growing up in Limpopo, South Africa the daughter of a farmer, I was always aware of the role of plants, which are at the bottom of the food chain, in food security. I have always been acutely mindful of the effects of drought and its threat to harvests and food security.
Early in my career, I realized that understanding how some drought-resistant plants tolerate extreme water loss could be of huge benefit, especially if we could mimic this in other crops. At the time, I had no clue about global warming and the impact it would have on the extent and intensity of droughts.
Call it fate or destiny, I am just extremely grateful that what I was led to work on some 34 years ago has brought me to a place where perhaps I can make a difference towards food security in Africa.
How did your interest in plants begin?
My interest was in part due to a childhood observation of the overnight greening up of a seemingly dead plant. I even noted it in my diary when I was nine! I still have the diary, and I wrote, “went to the flat rocks and the ded (sic) plant was alive,” and my father didn’t believe me. It wasn’t until much later that I came to understand that plants that can do this are unique, and they have much to teach us. They are called “resurrection plants,” and they can survive almost complete dehydration without dying.
What do these unique “resurrection plants” tell us about water and climate change?
Resurrection plants can survive the loss of over 90% of their cellular water. As my research life started, I quickly realized that these plants were using mechanisms of protection used by seeds to tolerate extreme water loss. They could in essence “re-wire” seed-specific genes to be able to use them in their leaves and roots to survive drought. The plants go into a kind of suspended animation.
Most plants, including all current crops providing 95% of food calories, can theoretically do this “rewiring,” as they have the genetic potential to do so in their seeds. The question then becomes, can we find a way to produce more crops that have this ability to tolerate drought?
My research focus began when I started working at the University of Cape Town (1994), and I was asked to examine a PhD thesis that focused on resurrection plants. Coincidentally, at the same time, my niece admitted to having read my diary, and reminded me of my early interest. I put two and two together, hired the thesis author, took a road trip around South Africa to collect several different species and started the next leg of my research career.
Have you made any new discoveries?
Indeed we have! We’ve been able to gain much insight into how certain resurrection grain crops related to teff—one of the world’s most nutritious grains—suppress drought-induced deterioration. We now aim to apply that knowledge to biotechnical production of teff and other drought-resistant crops.
Another promising line of research has been the discovery that this teff-related plant is also very tolerant of salt. This is a very important finding. Increased salinity in groundwater due to extended droughts and poor farming practices is also a rising threat to agriculture. We may ultimately be able to make teff more salt tolerant.
I also have two PhD students who are looking at resurrection plants that have fungi living within their tissues and fungi and bacteria that live at the root-soil interface. We believe the combination of those factors may facilitate drought tolerance. If so, we could possible apply these organisms to crop seedlings to facilitate drought tolerance.
Jill Farrant is a professor and researcher in Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, where she trains and mentors post-graduate students and post-doctoral research fellows. She holds a research chair, given by the South African Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) through the National Research Foundation (NRF) as part of its strategy to “attract and retain excellence in research and innovation at South African universities and research councils.”