Making Dew in the Atacama: Atmospheric Water Capture by Desert Plants


Monday, October 5, 2020, 12:00pm to 1:30pm

1:00 pm (Chile local time)

This event is part of Harvard-UAI Collaborative Research Discoveries in Chile Series.

To view the recording, click here.

Speakers: Noel Michele Holbrook, Charles Bullard Professor of Forestry; Professor of Biology, Harvard University; Jacques Dumais, Facultad de Ingeniería y Ciencias, Universidad Adolfo Ibañez

The ecosystems of Chile are biodiversity hotspots with as much as 50% of their flora composed of species endemic to the country. A particularly high degree of endemism is found in the Atacama Desert where many plant species harbor unique adaptations to acquire water in this extremely arid environment. In this webinar, we will reveal some of the secrets behind the ecological success of these plants. On the sandy dunes north to Copiapó where the soil is completely dry, the airplant Tillandsia landbeckii forgoes making roots altogether and uses specialized, multicellular hairs to absorb the tiny fog droplets intercepted by its leaves. Further north in the valleys of Pan de Azúcar, the shrub Nolana mollis draws saline water from deep in the soil, preventing the toxic accumulation of salts by secreting it onto the surface of its leaves. These innovations, perfected over millions of years, have allowed these plants to dominate their respective ecosystems. We will conclude this webinar with a discussion of how water acquisition strategies inspired by these plants offer sustainable solutions for the growing water crisis faced by humanity.

Michele Holbrook is Charles Bullard Professor of Forestry, Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Interim Director of the Harvard Forest and Faculty Fellow of the Arnold Arboretum. Dr. Holbrook studies the physics and physiology of vascular transport in plants with the goal of understanding how constraints on the movement of water and solutes between soil and leaves influences ecological and evolutionary processes. Dr. Holbrook is currently working on questions relating to embolism repair, leaf hydraulic design, and xylem evolution.

Jacques Dumais obtained his PhD from Stanford University in 2001 and subsequently held research and professor positions at the University of Cambridge and Harvard University, respectively. In 2012, Dr. Dumais joined the Faculty of Engineering and Sciences at Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez, Chile. Over the last two decades, research in the Dumais’ laboratory has focused on the many strategies used by plants to acquire water and how that water is used to fulfill various functions. A particular interest is the discovery and development of new water acquisition technologies inspired by the unique plants found in the hyperarid Atacama Desert of Chile.

Presented in collaboration with Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez.

This event is presented as part of Worldwide Week at Harvard 2020.