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The Mystery of Resurrection Grass is Solved

No, ‘resurrection grass’ is not the first bong hit of the day that jolts Willie Nelson’s eyes open (he has a different name for that). It’s a native Australian grass that seems to ‘rise from the dead’ after completely drying out during long periods of drought – up to several years. Scientists believe they’ve solved the resurrection mystery and unlocked the grass’ secret. What is it and can it be used for other species?

Tripogon loliiformis is one of a number of so-called “resurrection” plants found around the world. The rose of Jericho (Anastatica), found in the Middle East and the Sahara Desert, dries up and rolls into a ball to protect its seeds for years. The Serbian phoenix plant (amonda serbica), found in Serbia and surrounding countries, can flower after periods of full dehydration. The resurrection plant or false rose of Jericho (Selaginella lepidophylla) lives, dies, and lives again in the Chihuahuan Desert of Mexico.

Before and after of a rose of Jericho resurrection

Before and after of a rose of Jericho resurrection

According to a new report in PLOS Genetics, resurrection grass has puzzled scientists for years. Do its cells really ‘come back to life’ or is the growth actually new cells? Researchers at Queensland University of Technology found that even in cases where the grass loses over 95 percent of its water, the dead tissues began growing again when watered.

The secret, according to the team led by Professor Sagadevan Mundree and Dr. Brett Williams, is sugar. Before you go attempting immortality by downing gallons of soda, the sugar in this case is trehalose which is found in a fungus that grows on rye and other grasses. They discovered that resurrection grass accumulates trehalose when it starts to feel dry and uses it to trigger and control the resurrection process. That process, called autophagy, prevents dried-out cells from dying by recycling nutrients and removing the toxins that would normally cause the grass to die. Add a little water and the cells get activated and grow again.

Professor Sagadevan Mundree, Dr. Brett Williams and Hao Long watching plants come back to life

Professor Sagadevan Mundree, Dr. Brett Williams and Hao Long watching plants come back to life

What’s in this for us, Dr. Williams?

It’s an important step along a genetic path that we hope will lead to scientists being able to develop more robust crop varieties that can withstand the uncertainty of climate change whilst still producing maximum yields … resurrection plants present great potential for the development of stress tolerant crops.

Climate change – of course. Sorry, Willie. Trehalose won’t resurrect that stash from 2007 you found hidden in the attic but it may someday help feed millions whose conventional crops are killed by drought due to climate change.

Willie Nelson At Home In Texas

Willie Nelson coming back to life with his morning wake-up grass