What if you could turn a plant’s genes on and off depending on changes in light and temperature? A group of scientists from UC Riverside has done just that in a recent study that could have important implications for farmers in an era of rapid and unpredictable climate change (reported on by UC Riverside News).
Plants need light to develop and grow, and the protein found in plants that detects light is called phytochrome B. This particular protein changes the expression of genomes and alters plant growth based on light information received. Additionally, phytochrome B can control the activity of a group of proteins called PIFs. If the activity of the PIF proteins are reduced, this could lead to the plant’s stem slowing in growth.
According to the researchers, this discovery can assist in increasing food production and crop yields. When plants are too close together in a field, they compete for light. Shorter plants that end up in the shade of other plants exert extra energy to grow their stems taller than their neighbors. This extra energy is taken away from growing the “food part” of the plant, like the seeds, leave, or fruit.
The scientists, led by UCR botany professor Meng Chen, reduced the activity of the PIF proteins and reduced the stem growth. In turn, they discovered that plants with shorter stems can free up energy for the more desirable edible portions to grow more rapidly and robustly. They also found that manipulating a plant’s response to light can allow plants to be grown closer together and in the shade.
With the human population rapidly approaching 8 billion and expected to hit close to 10 billion by 2050, finding alternative solutions to growing high crop yields is prudent. Indoor farming, as companies like CropOne, AeroFarms, and BrightFarms practice, allow for a fully controlled environment and can result in consistent crop yields. A company called InnerPlant edits plant DNA to turn the plant into a living sensor to mitigate crop loss.
Climate change is expected to affect growing seasons and the ability to grow certain crops worldwide. However, studies like this give hope that one day crops will better adapt to fluctuations in light and temperature, making them viable in a rapidly changing environment.