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Bringing dehydrated plants 'back to life'

Drought can take a serious toll on plants and animals alike. When cells are deprived of water, they shrink, collapsing in upon themselves and, without water as a medium, chemicals and enzymes inside the cells may malfunction. However, some plants, like the aptly named "resurrection fern" (Polypodium polypodioides), can survive extreme measures of water loss, even as much as 95% of their water content. How do the cells in these desiccation-tolerant plants remain viable?

The collaboration between Ronald Balsamo, Associate Professor of Biology at Villanova University and Bradley Layton, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Mechanics at Drexel University, began in Balsamo's front yard one evening when the two of them were discussing the possible role that biomechanics plays in drought resistance. Balsamo had been conducting plant biomechanics at the tissue and organism scale, pulling apart leaves and stalks of plants with differing abilities to survive drought, while Layton had been spending his time primarily investigating single cells and modeling single proteins such as collagen and tubulin.

As they talked, it became apparent that any differences between plants of related species that give some individuals the ability to survive very low water levels, while their cousins die after only moderate water loss, must be occurring at the cellular and molecular level. They began their studies with the "resurrection fern," and these results can be found in the April issue of the American Journal of Botany ( by Layton and colleagues.

"The plant is just as dry and brittle as can be," Balsamo said. "It has lost 95% of its water, but it's still alive! Imagine this happening to a human. Most of us wouldn't make it past 10% or 20%." Unfortunately, this is also true of many agricultural crops. Maize, for example, can

Contact: Richard Hund
American Journal of Botany

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