New research gives insight into how “Living Stones” adapt to extreme conditions

Research by scientists at the University of Sheffield has given new insight on how some plants adapt to extreme conditions which could help in the future development of efficient crops.

The study was carried out on plants native to southern Africa known as “Living Stones”, or Lithops. These little succulents survive in the blazing deserts and rocky ground of southern Africa by blending in with surrounding pebbles to avoid being eaten and by burying themselves underground.

Living stoneNow researchers have discovered how the partially subterranean “Living Stones” still manage to harvest enough sunlight while avoiding drying out in the parched landscape, according to a study published in the journal PLOS ONE.

The Sheffield-based team used a combination of cutting-edge techniques to show that individual leaves of Lithops species are adapted for both high-light and shade-tolerance, revealing for the first time the novel combination of physiological mechanisms used to optimize simultaneous above-ground and underground photosynthesis while minimising water loss.

The research shows Lithops combines a top surface with “windows” of translucent tissue that allows light through to photosynthetic tissues deep in the underground portion of the leaf, with a biochemical sunscreen to block out harmful UV light.

To offset damage to the plant associated with too much sunlight, the plants also use a protective mechanism known as non-photochemical quenching in the above-ground parts of the leaves. The below-ground parts of the leaves are adapted more towards a shaded way of life, with highly specialised cell shapes, tissue chemistry and crystalline deposits to help maximise limited light levels.

The study, carried out by Dr Katie Field and Miss Rachel George from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Animal and Plant Sciences and Dr Matthew Davey at the University of Cambridge, observes for the first time extreme physiological flexibility in Lithops and offers new insight into how plants respond to extreme conditions.

Dr Katie Field, said: “This work highlights the incredible adaptations that have evolved in "Living Stones" in response to the blazing sunshine they experience in their desert habitat.

“Unlike most members of the plant kingdom, these amazing little plants photosynthesise underground. We've discovered that by using a sunscreen and moving their photosynthetic machinery beneath the soil, "living stones" manage to avoid the effects of too much sun yet simultaneously maximise photosynthesis through previously unrecorded mechanisms. This suits them for life both in full sun and in full shade, at the same time.

“This research helps us to understand how plants cope with extreme environments on Earth and may play a part in future development of efficient crop plants."

Additional information

The University of Sheffield

With nearly 25,000 of the brightest students from 117 countries coming to learn alongside 1,209 of the world’s best academics, it is clear why the University of Sheffield is one of the UK’s leading universities. Staff and students at Sheffield are committed to helping discover and understand the causes of things - and propose solutions that have the power to transform the world we live in.

A member of the Russell Group, the University of Sheffield has a reputation for world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines.

The University of Sheffield has been named University of the Year in the Times Higher Education Awards 2011 for its exceptional performance in research, teaching, access and business performance. In addition, the University has won four Queen’s Anniversary Prizes (1998, 2000, 2002, 2007), recognising the outstanding contribution by universities and colleges to the United Kingdom’s intellectual, economic, cultural and social life.

One of the markers of a leading university is the quality of its alumni and Sheffield boasts five Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students. Its alumni have gone on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence all over the world, making significant contributions in their chosen fields.

Research partners and clients include Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Unilever, Boots, AstraZeneca, GSK, Siemens, Yorkshire Water and many more household names, as well as UK and overseas government agencies and charitable foundations.

The University has well-established partnerships with a number of universities and major corporations, both in the UK and abroad. The White Rose University Consortium (White Rose) a strategic partnership between 3 of the UK's leading research universities of Leeds, Sheffield and York. Since its creation in 1997 White Rose has secured more than £100M into the Universities.


Clare Parkin
Media Relations Officer
University of Sheffield
0114 2229851