A group of scientists has identified a natural mechanism in plants they hope could help develop more food-efficient crops.
A team from the Australian National University and James Cook University have identified a process that helps plants limit water loss with little effect on carbon dioxide intake - an essential process for photosynthesis, plant growth and crop yield.
The researchers believe this water-preserving mechanism can be manipulated and may hold the key to breeding more resilient crops capable of withstanding extreme weather events, including drought.
While still in the early phases, the mechanism is believed to exist in a wide range of plants and has already been identified in cotton, capsicum and sunflower plants.
The challenge now is to understand what triggered plants to use the water-saving measure, which would pave the way for modifying crops.
Diego Marquez, from the ANU Research School of Biology, said it was believed water conduits, called aquaporins, provided this control.
"Once we're able to confirm this, we can then start thinking about how we can manipulate these systems and turn them into an asset for the agricultural industry," he said.
Lead author Chin Wong, also from the ANU Research School of Biology, said the finding was a "dream discovery" from a scientific and agricultural perspective.
"The agriculture industry has long held high hopes for scientists to come up with a way to deliver highly productive crops that use water efficiently," Dr Wong said.
"Plant scientists have been dealing with this big question of how to increase CO2 uptake and reduce water loss without negatively affecting yields.
"Having this mechanism that can reduce water loss with little effect on CO2 uptake presents an opportunity for agricultural scientists and plant breeders researching ways to improve water use efficiency and create drought-tolerant crops."
Dr Wong first alluded to this water preserving mechanism 14 years ago, but the research team has only now been able to officially confirm its existence thanks to years of experimentation and corroboration of their results.
Graham Farquhar, co-author and distinguished professor from ANU, said he expected both government and industry to be forthcoming with funding to achieve their next goal.
"Finding the mechanism itself was one step, a big one, but there is still work to do to translate this discovery into the industry," he said.