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Current advances and challenges in understanding plant desiccation tolerance

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The conundrum of desiccation tolerance dates to the beginning of the western scientific revolution with Antonie van Leeuwenhoek’s referral to ‘animalcules’ possessing revitalisation abilities upon exposure to moisture. In plants, vegetative desiccation tolerance is both a ubiquitous and a rare phenomenon. ...

The conundrum of desiccation tolerance dates to the beginning of the western scientific revolution with Antonie van Leeuwenhoek’s referral to ‘animalcules’ possessing revitalisation abilities upon exposure to moisture. In plants, vegetative desiccation tolerance is both a ubiquitous and a rare phenomenon. This apparent contradiction is due to the fact that many lower plants (e.g. lichens and mosses) and terrestrial algae are able to tolerate desiccation of their vegetative organs, whereas this is not true of angiosperms where relatively few species are ‘resurrection plants’ but, in contrast, most higher plants produce ‘orthodox’ (i.e. desiccation tolerant) seeds. Most of the initial research on resurrection plants employed ecological and physiological studies to characterise the distribution and natural behaviour of these plants. Later the disciplines of molecular genetics and biochemistry started to unravel the potential unseen cellular factors that may be responsible for this ability. In the last decade the science of systems biology with the various omics tools (e.g. transcriptomics, proteomics, metabolomics etc.) have been used to begin cataloguing the components that might be important for this phenomenon. Evolutionary considerations have also been employed to understand the ecological drivers and associated molecular changes that permit certain species to ‘evolve’ desiccation tolerance while others not. The initial search for a ‘magic bullet’ or single genetic factor responsible for desiccation tolerance has given way to a systems-based ‘multiple-factors-acting-in-concert’ approach to the problem. Are we any closer to unravelling the mechanisms responsible for vegetative desiccation tolerance? Numerous theories are still advocated, from glassy sugar states and osmo-protectants to specialised protein families (e.g. LEAs) to polysomal packaging of chromatin/mRNA to protection of photosynthesis structures; newer ideas refer to chromatin condensation/post-translational modification, cell wall remodelling/restructuring, protein phosphorylation and lipid signalling. A unified theory of plant desiccation tolerance seems a dream on the far distant horizon. The practical benefits of understanding how plants are able to ‘shut-down’ under incredibly harsh conditions and remain in a quiescent, but active, state has very practical benefits. The predicted influence of ‘Climate Change’ on world agricultural production and the increasing aridity experienced in many parts of the world has accelerated the urgency of finding scientific solutions to these problems. Resurrection plants may well be one of the solutions that could be employed to mitigate the effects. The aim of this research topic is to ask the hard questions: Do we really understand plant desiccation tolerance and its evolution? Do we need to re-evaluate the standard theories concerning the functional mechanisms involved (e.g. sugar metabolism and glassy states)? Are we just measuring correlations without evaluating the underlying causality in resurrection plant research? How can we get to a holistic understanding of the phenomenon? Is there a ‘magic bullet’ or ‘activation switch’ present in all plants? What approaches might yield better, more comprehensive, answers to how these plants manage to do this? Is crop engineering for desiccation tolerance a viable strategy? How can resurrection plants be used in agriculture and have practical benefits with respect to countering the influence of ‘Climate Change’? It is also very important to highlight the challenges ahead to making progress in the field. For example: The lack of suitable genome sequences of any resurrection plant species. No standardisation of approach and employment of a model species plus a lack of a proper integrated approach to the phenomenon. These challenges will need to be met if progress is to be made in understanding these enigmatic and remarkable plants. The benefits of unlocking the secrets of resurrecti


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