Crops News

At the molecular level: More work with food crops to withstand climate change


With heatwaves, drought, and salinity becoming more and more of an issue, plant biologists around the world are increasingly looking for ways to equip plants to be tolerant to multiple environmental stressors. Now, success with improving a plant’s response to harsh conditions is leading plant molecular researchers to move to food crops including wheat, barley, rice, and chickpeas.

Flinders University and La Trobe University researchers in Australia are focusing on genes that encode antioxidant enzymes to minimise harmful oxidative responses in leaf cells to environmental stress. Experiments showed the plant with enhanced enzyme levels becomes more hardy and recovering more readily from exposure to drought and “high light” — essentially, they can better weather climate events.

“Our research is proof of concept using the test plant Arabidopsis (Arabidopsis thaliana) that manipulating mitochondrial respiration is an important way to manage a plant’s response to abiotic stresses,” said Strategic Professor in Plant Biology David Day. The results appear in the journal Plant Physiology.

The researchers focused on two enzymes, which act together to moderate oxidative damage in the leaves of the model plant.

“These proteins act on the cellular energy core or mitochondria to minimise damage caused by drought or other stressors,” said Dr Crystal Sweetman, one of the lead authors of the new paper. “Therefore, plants bred to make more of these enzymes might be able to survive extreme heat or prolonged dry weather and have a better chance at producing food during bad seasons.”

Flinders Professor Kathleen Soole, who is also president of the Australian Society of Plant Scientists, says the methodology has shown its value and can now be adapted for more complex grain and legume food staples.

The team is keen for this work to be move to food crops like cereals. “This paves the way the selection of existing crop varieties with higher activities of these enzymes and for similar genetic manipulation of crop plants such as wheat and barley,” says plant molecular researcher Associate Professor Colin Jenkins.

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