Thanks to modern technology, we can observe in detail how plants breathe. It looks like a scene from another world, but this is how all plants on this planet breathe. It is a process without which there would be no life on this planet. Scientists want not only to study this process in detail, but also to be able to modify it. It seems that humans are already experimenting too much with what nature has given us. But scientists say that modifying this process could protect key plants in places where they might be at risk.

What does the study find?

Researchers from UC San Diego, Estonia, and Finland, funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), have found an elusive molecular pathway that plants use to direct their ‘breathing’ of carbon dioxide. The scientist is interested in how plants perceive carbon dioxide and under what circumstances they leave their stomata open and when they are closed. By controlling this process, they would like to produce crops resilient enough for an ever-changing environment.

“The researchers hope that harnessing this mechanism could lead to future engineering of plant water use efficiency and carbon intake, critical as atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration continues to increase,” said Jared Dashoff, a National Science Foundation spokesperson.

“In fact, the researchers have filed a patent and are examining ways to translate their findings into tools for crop breeders and farmers.”

The process, described in research published in Science Advances, becomes clearer on the microscopic level.

Plants must reach a balance

Plants differ among themselves, but most of them have tiny gates called stomata on their leaves and other parts of their bodies. These are stomatal pores that are opened and closed again.

“However, when the stomata are open, the inside of the plant is exposed to the elements and water from the plant is lost into the surrounding air, which can dry out the plant,” said Dashoff. “Plants, therefore, must balance the intake of carbon dioxide with water vapor loss by controlling how long the stomata remain open.”

For mankind, the most important plants are those that provide sustenance, these are crops such as corn, rice or wheat. If the climate somewhere changes and the plants can’t reach a new balance, they can dry out. If this happens, farmers will lose their crops and people may starve. The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases and the temperature increases. It affects the balance between carbon dioxide input and water vapor loss.

“Scientists have long understood stomata and the balance between carbon dioxide intake and water loss. What they haven’t known, until now, is how plants sense carbon dioxide to signal stomata to open and close in response to changing carbon dioxide levels,” said Dashoff.

“Knowing this will now enable researchers to edit those signals—so plants can strike the right balance between taking in carbon dioxide versus losing water—and allow scientists and plant breeders to produce crops robust enough for the environment of the future.”