Researchers Uncovered the Genetic Data That Can Help Food Crops Survive Global Warming

University of California Riverside scientists say this breakthrough will allow them to cultivate tomatoes and rice that's better able to grow through droughts.

As the world we live in continues to change because of the warming climate, the way the environment operates will follow suit—including how food crops grow. Thanks to a new study from University of California Riverside scientists published in the journal Cell, there could be a way to save the crops that aren't drought tolerant based on their genetic makeup. "Frequently, researchers do lab and greenhouse experiments, but farmers grow things in the field, and this data looks at field samples too," Neelima Sinha, a UC Davis professor of plant biology and the paper's co-author, said.

tomatoes gwoing on vine
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Common food crops, such as tomatoes and rice, were the focus of the experiment. The team explained that the plants' genes produce one very important thing: Xylem, vessels that take water and nutrients from the roots up the shoots and create food through photosynthesis. "Xylem are very important to shore up plants against drought as well as salt and other stresses," said Siobhan Brady, a lead study author and a professor of plant biology at UC Davis.

These plants' genes also create ligin and suberin. Ligin waterproofs cells and provides mechanical support of the crops. The latter surrounds plant cells in a thick layer, which is especially helpful to retain water during drought-like conditions. "Suberin and lignin are natural forms of drought protection, and now that the genes that encode for them in this very specific layer of cells have been identified, these compounds can be enhanced," said study co-author Julia Bailey-Serres, a UC Riverside professor of genetics. "I'm excited we've learned so much about the genes regulating this moisture barrier layer. It is so important for being able to improve drought tolerance for crops."

The researchers explained that these genes, along with the plants' root meristem (their growing tip and source of all the cells in the root), are the most important qualities that make for long-lasting crop growth. "The 'hidden half' of a plant, below ground, is critical for breeders to consider if they want to grow a plant successfully," Brady said. "Being able to modify the meristem of a plant's roots will help us engineer crops with more desirable properties." Plus, with more research, the scientists believe they can find even more parallels among other commonly grown crops. "Tomato and rice are separated by more than 125 million years of evolution, yet we still see similarities between the genes that control key characteristics," said Bailey-Serres. "It's likely these similarities hold true for other crops too."

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