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On the horizon: crops that adapt to changing weather

On the horizon: crops that adapt to changing weather

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Discoveries about how plants survive could help researchers develop crops that are more resilient to sudden environmental changes.

Sudden change is rarely good for the biological organism. Forms of life are designed to adapt to survive, but sudden, extreme conditions leave all but the most flexible -- or biologically lucky -- in their wake.

What if we could engineer plants to improve their resiliency?

A series of discoveries about the survival mechanisms of plants are a step toward the creation of crops that can cope with sudden fluctuations in weather.

Scientists at the University of Edinburgh studying how algae renew old or damaged cell proteins found that the speed at which protein renewal takes place dictates how quickly the algae can adapt to environmental changes such as frost or drought.

Specifically, the researchers found that renewal rates vary between proteins according to their role and their location within cells. For example, proteins that carry out photosynthesis renew quickly because they are at risk of light damage. On the other hand, proteins that protect DNA in plant cells -- largely safe from external damage -- renew slowly.

They made the discovery by developing a method to detect how quickly algae take up nitrogen from their food. Nitrogen is used to make proteins.

With this knowledge, researchers could grow crops with proteins that respond quickly to changing conditions. The opposite is also possible, allowing them to develop high-yield crops for stable environments.

Of course, Mother Nature is all about flexibility, and it's unclear what the trade-offs are. (Does increased flexibility lead to lower yields? What if an unforeseen disaster strikes an area covered with inflexible crops -- are we baiting a crisis by piling our metaphorical casino chips on a single bet?)

For now, it's merely accumulated knowledge. But it will be interesting to see how commercial interests guide this research.

Their research was published in the Journal of Proteome Research.

Photo: Nigel Wedge/Flickr

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure