Plants that are treated with ethanol – a scientific term for ordinary alcohol – can develop a tolerance to drought conditions which can help them survive extreme dry periods of weather, according to research carried out by Japanese scientists.

The study shows that exogenous application of ethanol (meaning applied to the surface of plants) significantly enhances drought tolerance in rice and wheat.

The researchers noted the inexpensive and environmentally friendly nature of ethanol.

Analysis of the plants after the application of ethanol found an increase of amino acids related to drought tolerance, and that drought-induced water loss was delayed in the ethanol-treated plants.

As well as that, the ethanol treatment induced closure of the stoma, which are tiny pores through which water vapour leaves the plant. This meant that the plants retained more water.

The researchers said that their findings “highlight a new survival strategy for increasing crop production under water-limited conditions”.

A lack of available water limits plant growth and their ability to photosynthesise, resulting in decreased crop yield.

Conditions of limited water supply are expected to become more frequent and longer lasting due to climate change, which the researchers said presents concerns for food security.

The study underlines that a “thorough understanding” of plant drought stress response “is essential for developing effective strategies to mitigate the adverse effects of drought stress”.

The researchers said that chemically priming plants to make them resistant to drought conditions must be affordable to farmers, environmentally friendly, and safe for humans, animals and plants.

According to the research, ethanol fulfils those criteria while also being effective.

The widespread use of ethanol for this purpose would also offset the need to genetically modify plants to make them more drought resistant.

“Ethanol-mediated drought tolerance may be exploited to mitigate the adverse effects of drought stress and represents an alternative to the development of [genetically modified] plants or laborious classical breeding methods,” the researchers said.