California has been experiencing the worst drought in 500 years, and it's had scientists wondering how plants could survive a hotter, dryer planet in the future. A team of researchers at Oxford may have found an answer by tinkering with a gene used for photosynthesis.
Tiny organelles within plants called chloroplasts assist in energy-producing photosynthesis. A gene called SP1 helps those chloroplasts develop. The Oxford team proved that this gene can play a key role in helping plants survive times of stress—like, y’know, drought. The results were published in the journal Current Biology.
The scientists used three samples of the same cress plant species to test this. This included an unadulterated sample found in the wild, a mutant one that contained too little SP1, and one that was engineered to contain an SP1 surplus. All three were subjected to an all-out assault: drought, herbicides, salt overload. In every case, the SP1-deficient plants didn’t grow. But the plants that over-expressed for SP1 were more tolerant than even the wild plants.
But, why? Well, the scientists experimented further, and found lower-than-normal levels of toxic compounds in the SP1-juiced plants. See, in harsh conditions, photosynthesis can actually produce something called “reactive oxygen species,” which are harmful to plants. But an abundance of SP1 limits the production of such reactive oxygen species in the face of a rough environment.
With this knowledge, scientists could engineer plants to over-express for the SP1 gene, and possibly survive the harsh conditions our planet will likely face in the coming decades thanks to climate change. The team is already starting to experiment on rice, tomatoes, and wheat.
“We expect the gene to behave the same way in crops like wheat as it does in cress,” lead researcher Paul Jarvis told Phys.org. “We hope that this kind of SP1 technology will be used to improve crop performance around the world.” That idea’s refreshing, like a nice cold glass of water.
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