The secret behind the plants in the Atacama Desert in Chile

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A promising scientific study was published a few weeks before COP 15 in Abidjan on the fight against desertification. A French-Chilean team has isolated the molecules responsible for drought resistance in about twenty plants from the Atacama Desert, the driest region in the world.

The landscapes are Mars, hit by a scorching sun, where NASA is testing devices. Here is the earth ocher, sad as copper, wrote the French poet Louis Aragon. It is home to half of the world’s lithium reserves.

Not a human soul, not a tree, not a bird for hundreds of kilometers between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes. Between 2,000 and 4,500 meters above sea level. Nature is necessarily hostile. Hardly a drop of water. 0.1 millimeters of rain per year on average. It rains 250 times more in the Sahara.

The most inhospitable of deserts

It is the driest place in the world (except for the “dry valleys” of Antarctica, where there has been no rainfall for 2 million years!)

And yet some plants live in the Atacama Desert, which may be useful for the future of mankind, as a study by the Papal Catholic University of Chile and the University of Bordeaux has just shown, and published a few weeks before COP-15 in Abidjan, the World Summit dedicated to the fight against desertification, which ends on Friday 20 May.

“The Atacama Desert is a particularly interesting environment for scientists, describes Pierre Pétriacq, a teacher-researcher at the University of Bordeaux and at Inrae, the national institute for agro-food and environmental research. It has extreme stressors: high salinity in the soil, very high sunshine, very poor water content in the soil – 50 times drier than Death Valley in California. It is the most inhospitable of deserts. »

Resistant plants

But in this apocalyptic desert, sometimes only a miracle is needed: a little rain, and seeds that have been half-staffed for years begin to sprout. The desert is covered with flowers – but it is unique. Rain can also be deadly, as U.S. researchers had observed after a very unusually heavy downpour that had caused the massive extinction of microbial species in the desert.

Plants need water. But when there is a lack of water, how do they adapt then? Despite everything, and despite negative temperatures at night, some plant species adapt to this extreme environment. French-Chilean scientists studied 24 Atacama plants to isolate the molecules responsible for their resistance using an artificial intelligence program.

Metabolic toolbox

“This is the interest of our study: we were able to highlight a certain number of markers that are common to all the plant species that we have been able to study in the desert, explains Pierre Pétriacq. Something even more surprising: These markers are also present in plants grown in France, such as wheat, corn, tomato, etc. This means that plants have a metabolic toolbox that allows them to adapt to extreme conditions. »

And it is this toolbox that will enable INRAE, within a few years, after the selection process, to develop tomatoes or cereals that are more drought-resistant.


“Is the big condor that big?”

Andes Cordillera’s emblematic vulture, black plumage and white collar, is the bird of all records: the heaviest flying bird in the world (more than 12 kilos on average for the male), the one that on average possesses the largest wingspan, more than 3 meters. It is also the tallest bird in the sky, up to 6,000 meters. Finally, the great condor has the greatest lifespan of the poultry kingdom: half a century on average in the wild, even longer in captivity. Although he does not live in the Atacama Desert, he sometimes gets very hot. To cool its body, it urinates on its paws. He soothes himself, and it soothes.

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