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Marc Brazeau | Editor | Food and Farm Discussion Lab | @eatcookwrite
If you are casting about for a New Year’s resolution that won’t trigger any guilt when you fail, requires little effort, and delivers small but reliable returns on investment; let me make a suggestion to my fellow lay person / general reader types. Take a little time and read a few write ups on the latest research in plant breeding every now and then, spend an afternoon doing a deep dive if it’s not something you think you’ll keep on.
I don’t what you’ll learn. But, you’ll learn something. Something subtle about how plants work that you didn’t realize but should have been obvious. Something about what makes a variety of a crop thrive here, but not there. What makes a crop more useful to farmers. Something about circadian rhythms or stress or drought or how clouds interact with photosynthesis. But I promise you, you’ll learn something interesting with very little effort.
Two examples I that came my way this week that made me think of this.
The researchers have found that winter-grown canola is particularly affected by nighttime temperature rises during the flowering and seed-forming stages. Temperatures of 68-73 degrees Fahrenheit have a significant negative impact on yield, the researchers say.
What exactly is the plant doing at night? It’s not sleeping like humans do, but it is carrying out important processes that impact how much oil it can produce. During the night, the plant performs maintenance at the cellular level. This allows it to have enough energy to grow new cells and repair damaged ones.
In the case of canola, it must also flower, produce pollen, be pollinated, generate a pod, and finally create seeds in a pod. The final amount of oil or meal that comes from canola is largely determined by the number of pods, the seeds per pod, and individual seed weight.
All of these important steps are limited when the temperature increases, including during nighttime.
“High night temperature stress changes different physiological processes that ultimately lead to decreased seed set, grain number, grain filling duration, grain filling rate, and final grain weight in canola,” Pokharel says. That means a lower return for the grower.
The researchers focused on mustard cress which grows across Europe, Asia and northwest Africa. Surprisingly, Scandinavian plants can cope with extreme drought as well as those from Mediterranean countries. This could be because water in the Scandinavian soil is frozen for many months, making it inaccessible to plants and effectively creating drought conditions.
The researchers planted mustard cress seeds collected from over two hundred locations as diverse as North Africa, Spain, central Europe and northern Sweden. After they had germinated under optimal conditions, the plants were challenged with severe drought, and their ability to survive this stress was recorded. Using large-scale genome sequencing information, specific genetic variants could be linked to the plants’ ability to survive longer. Combined with climate predictions from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the team were then able to generate maps showing the location of genetic variants key to the species’ future survival.
“I was shocked to touch the soil in the pots of plants from northern Sweden and Spain, finding it completely dry and brittle, while the plants survived with rich, green leaves,” says lead author Moises Exposito-Alonso from the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology. “I travelled to Sweden, where I observed plants surviving in the same way in their natural environment. It reminded me of seeing mustard cress thrive in the broken clay of dried-out river beds where I grew up in Spain. Many botanists and also others think of mustard cress as being the lab rat of plant biologists, but what few realize is that it lives in extreme environments, making it ideal for studying adaptation to climate change,” he says.
I don’t know what your take aways from those examples are going to be. I’m not sure what mine are, but I know I’ll be thinking about this stuff in a slightly more sophisticated way than I was last week.
One word of warning though. While the eco-system for learning about the latest breakthroughs in research is robust, the means of learning where if they were later replicated, or applied or brought to market is not. That is an asymmetry that tilts towards leaving you a little unsatisfied. I guess that’s an untrigger warning.