In a major breakthrough which could make it easier to feed the world's growing population in the backdrop of climate change, researchers have identified a gene that could help scientists engineer drought-resistant crops.
The gene called OSCA1 encodes a protein in the cell membrane of plants that senses changes in water availability and adjusts the plant's water conservation machinery accordingly.
The findings could lead to new ways to help plants thrive when water is scarce.
"It is similar to a thermostat," said Zhen-Ming Pei, an associate professor of biology at Duke University.
The gene was found in Arabidopsis thaliana - a small, unassuming plant related to cabbage and canola.
The next step is to manipulate the activity of the OSCA1 gene and related genes and see how those plants respond to drought.
"Plants that enter drought-fighting mode quickly and then switch back to normal growth mode quickly when drought stress is gone should be able to allocate energy more efficiently toward growth," Pei concluded.
The findings appeared in the journal Nature.