The key to life revealed in her 'Lazarus plants'

20 November 2011 - 04:43 By Rowan Philp
Professor Jill Farrant, the fourth South African to win the L'Oréal-Unesco award for top women scientists, aims to help farmers beat droughts
Professor Jill Farrant, the fourth South African to win the L'Oréal-Unesco award for top women scientists, aims to help farmers beat droughts

South African scientist praised for unlocking secrets to drought-surviving crops, writes Rowan Philp

AT the age of nine, Jill Farrant noticed a plant on her family farm which had somehow come back to life a day after looking shrivelled and dead.

Writing in her journal, she described how her father did not believe her about the bobbejaanstert shrub's revival: "Went to flat rocks and the ded [sic] plant was alive. Dad said it was too soon after the rain."

Four decades on, Farrant has been named as one of the world's top women scientists for discovering how plants - like the one she found as a child - could help save Africa from the ravages of climate change.

Farrant, 50, is one of five winners of the 2012 L'Oréal-Unesco Award for Women in Science and will receive an R800 000 prize in Paris, France, in March. This week documentary filmmakers from Unesco travelled from the US and Europe to track her journey of discovery back to her family farm in Limpopo.

She plans to use some of her prize money to reward top science pupils at the farm school her brother, Dr Peter Farrant, established on their land.

But her goal, she says, is "to help save Africa" by trying to create breeds of maize and other crops which will produce food after up to two months of total drought.

"My research is relevant to what might happen. We will get more extended droughts and we have to give Africa's subsistence farmers and others the tools to survive them," she says.

The A-rated researcher is a professor of molecular physiology at the University of Cape Town and last year became the first woman to receive the Harry Oppenheimer Memorial Trust Fellowship award. She says the key to creating crops that can survive droughts lies in the genes of a rare class of flora known as "resurrection plants".

Farrant says her journal entry as a child came a year before Australian botanist Don Gaff first published a scientific paper describing the remarkable Lazarus-like properties of the shrubs.

While humans would die if they lost a relatively small portion of their water content, Farrant says, such plants could fully revive themselves after losing 95% of their water.

She has shown that their secret is to turn their remaining water first into sugar crystals and then into a solid, glasslike sugar substance.

Farrant has time-lapse videos - set to "funky music" - showing how these plants survive six months without a drop of water.

At first they appear dead. But within 16 hours of the first rain they explode into green splendour - after melting their glass-sugar reserve.

Even more remarkable is that the plants' genes can "tell" them when to switch on this protection mode against drought.

Unfortunately, says Farrant, food crops can't perform the glass-sugar trick. Crops do have other ways to protect themselves - but do not engage them in time ahead of droughts.

Farrant says her "Lazarus plants" are revealing the secrets of how to switch on those mechanisms in time to help the plants survive.

In a special greenhouse at UCT, Farrant's collaborators have healthy, flowering mealie plants which have not had a drop of water in more than two weeks. Her team used a "gene gun" to instruct the maize plants to protect themselves against dry conditions. "Normally, they would be brown, or dead," she said. "But these are not yet drought-tolerant enough. When we get to two months without water and still kicking, then we'll really have something."

Danie Visser, deputy vice-chancellor for research at UCT, says: "Jill Farrant is a truly deserving laureate. This is yet another reminder of the telling impact that women have at UCT and, as the award demonstrates, on the world."

Ironically, the woman who has uncovered the sixth sense of the plant world has only three senses herself. Farrant lost her senses of smell and taste after an accident two years ago.

Farrant calls herself "whacky" and "eccentric" and likes writing songs and poetry. She says it's not insignificant that it rained on the day she was born - after weeks of drought.