20 January 2006

Changing Plant Genes to Cope with Climate

A Bio.com newsfeature reports on British researchers' discoveries of barley genes that control the plant's response to climate parameters, such as length of day.

The varieties of crops grown in the UK are suited to the soil, seasons and traditional cool, wet summers. Later flowering in barley means it has a longer growing period to amass yield. If British summers get hotter and drier we will need types of wheat, barley and other crops that flower earlier, like Mediterranean varieties, to beat summer droughts. However, new varieties will need to be adapted in all other ways to UK conditions. "

With the new knowledge about the workings of barley researchers and plant breeders will find it easier to select variations that will thrive in the UK environment but will also flower earlier, coping with hotter summers.

Dr Laurie commented, "Although our research has been on barley we know from observation that other crops show similar variation in the way they respond to the lengthening of the day in springtime. We are confident that we will find equivalent genes in other key crops."

The article mentions global warming concerns, but of course that is the crisis du jour. The larger more important issue is the ability to "adjust plant genomes" to cope with a variety of environments. As plant scientists better understand how a plant's genes allow it to interact with its environment, they will be better equipped to actually change a plant to match its environment.

If you have sandy soil, you will be able to adapt your crop to suit the soil. If your water is brackish, you can adjust your plants to deal with the salts. Too wet? Too dry? Too cold? Too hot? Just dial in the appropriate genes, and the plant is happy.

Designing plants that produce large quantities of sweet crude oil, or plants that take the CO2 from the air and make diamonds--those are not far fetched. Of course, neither is the idea of teaching a cotton plant to make cocaine, or an onion plant to make opium. Our human senses were designed to monitor macroscopic details. What is going on inside the nucleus of a plant cell is harder to detect.


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