As our planet is becoming warmer with more frequent heat and drought stress events, finding crops that are more productive and can tolerate these conditions while using less water in less arable land, is now a priority.
A team of scientists from Western Sydney University's Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment (HIE) have found that varieties of crops like corn and sorghum with narrow leaves would be more water-use efficient and possibly, more productive.
The research was funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for Translational Photosynthesis (CoETP) at HIE and The Australian National University, with collaborators from Washington State University (WSU) in the USA.
"We wanted to know if leaf size affect other processes that happen inside the leaf during photosynthesis, especially in relation to the use of water, and we found that it does," said Dr Javier Cano, from the CoETP.
"The implications of this study for breeders are huge, as narrow leaves may allow more light to enter into the lower leaves of the crop canopy which will increase photosynthesis in those usually shaded leaves and therefore, productivity.
"Also, farmers could increase the density of plants in the field to compensate for the reduction in leaf area at the plant level, while reducing evaporation of water through the soil and diminish the competition for resources with weeds, especially during the early growth stages after germination."
Dr Cano said the results are exciting because they show that "just by changing a property at the leaf scale, we can increase water use efficiency at the canopy level and, possibly at the field level."
The research will continue.