The global population is expected to reach 9.7 billion. In 2050 – but how do we feed all these people? About a third of the world's cultivated areas suffer from a lack of available iron, making it scary to staple crops such as corn and soybeans.
Last year, a Stanford research team led by an associate professor of chemical engineering Elizabeth Sattely discovered a genetic adaptation that allows a hardy plant to thrive on these marginal soils. Now her lab has revealed more about the genetic mechanisms behind this survival trait. Although several studies are needed, Sattely believes that this research pathway will one day enable researchers to incorporate this adaptive mechanism into the genomes of staple crops, thereby opening up more farmland for food production and leading to a new, eco-friendly form of plant genetic engineering. "We may be able to take features developed through natural selection and move them where we need them," says Sattely.
Sattelys laboratory studies the soil microbial community of bacteria living around the roots of plants to help them treat nutrients in much the same way gut bacteria help people digest food. Her research in this area focuses on a form of plant indigestion: an inability to absorb enough iron, which mounts crop growth and depresses yields.
Scientists have long known why such iron deficiency occurs. Many dry areas of the world, including the western United States, have alkaline soils, and this alkalinity acts as a chemical lock that sheds iron into the soil. But after studying this problem for years, Sattely's laboratory discovered how a plant known as Arabidopsis thaliana a relative of cabbage and mustard, overcomes this iron deficiency, thanks to the way its roots interact with alkaline earths. The researchers showed how Arabidopsis roots excrete a molecule in the coumarin family that exerts a chemical trait that helps yank with iron into the plant and overcomes the compensatory drag exerted by the earth's alkalinity.
In their most recent experiments, Sattelys laboratory found another way that coumarin can help Arabidopsis acclimatize with alkaline conditions: The coumarin molecules that the roots of the plant secrete into the soil drive away some bacteria. Since bacteria also need iron to grow, the researchers assume that the plant is trying to protect its access to a vital mineral. "Arabidopsis has developed a metabolic pathway that chemically alters the surrounding soil and its root microbial when its iron supply is limited," said Mathias Voges, graduate student at Sattely's laboratory, leading to this new work.
To study all of these chemical interactions that typically occur underground and out of sight, Sattely's laboratory developed an experimental process based on hydroponics. Voges grew Arabidopsis plants in water which had a chemical and mineral content similar to alkaline soil. To this environment, he added the various types of bacteria that normally compose the Arabidopsis root microbiome. In the future, scientists can use this hydroponic platform to create various pseudo-soil environments to test how plants respond to other opposites ̵
In short, Sattely's laboratory will try to understand better how the coumarin adaptation works so that they can eventually grow bioengine wheat, corn or other crops in alkaline soils. Meanwhile, as scientists use the hydroponic technique to detect other root microbial adaptations, she believes this will lead to another generation of plant genetic engineering. Instead of technical man-made traits in plants, researchers will have the ability to move naturally developed traits from one plant to another.
"What we imagine is a new type of ecologically missed crop science," Sattely said.
Researchers identify genetic variants that help the plants grow in lowland environments, which can improve crop yields.
Mathias J. E. E. E. Voges et al. Plant-derived coumarins form the composition of an Arabidopsis synthetic root microbiome, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2019). DOI: 10,1073 / pnas.1820691116
A New Way to Grow Crops in Marginal Soils Can Help Feed the World (2019, July 9)
retrieved on July 9, 2019
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