Today’s Solutions: February 04, 2023

We tend to think of crops as delicate and temperamental, that they require a lot of care and particular conditions to grow in. While this is certainly true for, say, avocados, which require incredible amounts of water naturally found in tropical rainforests, some crops evolved to live and thrive in some of Earth’s harshest environments. 

Stanford biologists looked at one “extreme” plant to see how it could influence future climate-resistant crops. 

“Extremophytes”

“With climate change, we can’t expect the environment to stay the same,” said Ying Sun, a postdoctoral researcher at the Salk Institute who earned her doctorate at Stanford and is a lead author of the paper recently published in Nature Plants. “Our crops are going to have to adapt to these rapidly changing conditions. If we can understand the mechanisms that plants use to tolerate stress, we can help them do it better and faster.”

Stanford biologist José Dinneny, senior author of the paper, studies how certain plants not only survive harsh, dry, or even heavily salty conditions, but thrive in them. He’s looking in particular at schrenkiella parvula, a plucky and resilient member of the mustard family. It grows in abundance on the banks of Lake Tuz in Turkey, where salt contents can be six times higher than in the sea. Schrenkiella parvula isn’t surviving despite these tough conditions, Dinneny found. It evolved to survive because of them. 

“Most plants produce a stress hormone that acts as a stop signal for growth,” said Dinneny. “But in this extremophyte, it’s a green light. The plant accelerates its growth in response to this stress hormone.”

Dinneny and his associates are looking into specifically how schrenkiella parvula survives in these conditions and how scientists might replicate this adaptation in future crops. They found that schrenkiella parvula — a member of the Brassicaceae family, containing cabbage, broccoli, turnips, and other important food crops — reacts differently to a stress hormone plants release under water-scarce conditions. When normal plants grow less under this hormone, schrenkiella parvula actually grows faster. 

Growing crops and fuel?

As it turns out, schrenkiella parvula is related to many oilseed species scientists are investigating for a source of biofuel. If other oilseed plants can be adapted to grow in dry, resource-scarce areas then there might be brand new potential for alternative sources of fuel. 

“You want to be growing bioenergy crops on land that is not suitable for growing food – say, an agricultural field that has degraded soil or has accumulated salinity because of improper irrigation,” Dinneny said. “These areas are not prime agricultural real estate, but land that would be abandoned otherwise.”

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