As a growing population and climate change threaten food security, researchers around the world are working to overcome the challenges that threaten the dietary needs of humans and livestock. A pair of scientists is now making the case that the knowledge and tools exist to facilitate the next agricultural revolution we so desperately need.

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) Professor Zach Lippman, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, recently teamed up with Yuval Eshed, an expert in plant development at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, to sum up the current and future states of plant science and agriculture.

Their review, published in Science , cities examples from the last 50 years of biological research and highlights the major genetic mutations and modifications that have fueled past agricultural revolutions. Those include tuning a plant’s flowering signals to adjust yield, creating plants that can tolerate more fertilizer or different climates, and introducing hybrid seeds to enhance growth and resist disease.

Beneficial changes like these were first discovered by chance, but modern genomics has revealed that most of them are rooted in two core hormonal systems: Florigen, which controls flowering; and Gibberrellin, which influences stem height.

Lippman and Eshed suggest that in an age of fast and accurate gene editing, the next revolutions do not need to wait for chance discoveries. Instead, by introducing a wide variety of crops to changes in these core systems, the stage can be set to overcome any number of modern-day challenges.

Dwarfing and flower power revolutions

To explain their point, the scientists reviewed research that focused on key moments in agricultural history, such as the Green Revolution.

Before the 1960s, fertilizing for a large wheat yield would result in the plants growing too tall. Weighed down with their grainy bounty, the wheat stems would fold and rot away, resulting in yield losses. It was only after Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug began working with mutations that affect the Gibberellin system that wheat became the shorter and reliable crop we know today. Borlaug’s dwarfing was also applied to rice, helping many fields weather storms that would have been catastrophic only years before. This reapplication of the same technique to a different plant hinted that a core system was in play.

More recent examples Lippman and Eshed mention include the changes undergone by cotton crops in China. There, growers turned the normally sprawling, southern plantation plant into a more compact, faster flowering bush better suited for China’s northern climate. To do so, they took advantage of a mutation that affects Florigen, which promotes flowering, and its opposite, Antiflorigen.

This kind of change is related to Lippman’s works. He often works with tomatoes and explained that an Antiflorigen mutation in tomato was also the catalyst that transformed the Mediterranean vine crop into the stout bushes grown in large-scale agricultural systems throughout the world today. What’s striking, Lippman said, is that cotton is quite unlike any tomato.

“They’re evolutionarily very different in terms of the phylogeny of plants. And despite that, what makes a plant go from making leaves to making flowers is the same,” he said. “That core program is deeply conserved.”

Read the paper: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

Article source: Science

Image credit: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

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