Scientists Tinker with Plant Genes to Stave Off Climate Change Effects
Climate change has a multitude of deleterious effects on Earth’s ecosystems, including stressing some species of plants and exacerbating drought-prone regions. At Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Center for Bioenergy Innovation, scientists have identified a gene that can bolster plants' defenses against harsh conditions while also sucking more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere than usual, according to a statement.
With agriculture being one of the top uses of limited freshwater supplies, the research aims to develop crops that require less water while also helping to sequester CO2.
Published in the journal Cells, the study focused on desert species like the agave that undergoes a specialized form of photosynthesis called crassulacean acid metabolism, or CAM, which allows the plant to store CO2 during the nighttime hours for use in producing sugars during the day. This enables desert plants to keep their stomata closed during hot daytime hours, avoiding excess water loss.
The research team used its Titan supercomputer to identify the AaPEPC1 gene responsible for the desert plants’ hardiness and genetically engineered the tobacco plant to have the agave’s prowess. The study’s results showed the added gene resulted in greater stress tolerance and biomass in the tobacco plant.
“Anything we can do to make bioenergy crops more drought tolerant and grow quickly has positive economic value,” CBI Director Jerry Tuskan said. “We are looking at dedicated energy crops that do not compete with food production. To do that, we’ll need to grow these crops on marginal lands that experience drought.”
If the genetic engineering can successfully be applied to other crops, the research could help boost food security for the increasing human population as agricultural conditions worsen due to climate change.
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