agriculture rapeseed

Gene-edited crops could overcome lower yields caused by climate change

Image credit: Dreamstime

Gene-edited agricultural crops could be produced to overcome the increasing problem of ‘pod shatter’, which is being exacerbated by global warming, say researchers at a leading British plant science centre.

Pod shatter is a condition where the seed pods of cruciferous plants such as cabbage, broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts and oilseed rape open prematurely, preventing harvesting and lowering farmers’ yields.

The researchers at the John Innes Centre in Norfolk pinpointed a genetic heat trigger that plays a key role in the phenomenon, which is considered one of the major causes of cruciferous crop failure.

The discovery could pave the way to plant breeding or genetic engineering strategies aimed at producing cruciferous plants that can withstand the effects of global warming.

“Over the last two decades, scientists have identified the genes that control pod shatter. However, it is not until now that we have begun to understand how their activity is affected by the environment, and in this case temperature,” explained Professor Lars Østergaard.

Example of seedpods that have undergone pod shatter

To study the effects of temperature on seed dispersal, Dr Xinran Li, a postdoctoral researcher, monitored fruit development in Arabidopsis, a model plant related to the important Brassicaceae crops, at three different temperatures 17, 22 and 27 degrees centigrade.

This showed that stiffening of the cell wall at the tissue where pod shatter takes place is enhanced by increasing temperature, leading to accelerated seed dispersal.

One solution would be to use precise gene-editing tools such as Crispr/Cas9 to suppress a key temperature-sensitive gene.

Dr Vinod Kumar, who co-led the John Innes Centre team, said: “It’s almost as if there is a thermostat that controls seed dispersal, or pod shatter. As we learn how it works, we could in the future ‘rewire’ it so seed dispersal does not happen at the same pace at higher temperatures.

“This piece of the puzzle, coupled with the use of advanced genetic tools, means that developing temperature-resilient crops becomes an achievable dream.”

On average, farmers of oil seed rape lose 15-20 per cent of their crop yield each year due to premature seed dispersal.

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