Study of Peach Genes Offers Promise in Future of Climate Stress

By identifying the gene that tells peaches when to bloom, scientists have rounded a corner in the race to keep up with our ever-changing climate.

Wild peaches, prunus mira, grow near a glacier on the Tibetan Plateau. (Credit: Yong Li, Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, via Courthouse News)

(CN) — Peaches, and their blossoms, have a reputation for being among the more delicate crops. But hardy varieties of wild peaches, able to thrive in the cold and drought, could unlock new insights for developing agriculture able to weather a changing climate. 

Researchers have identified which genes likely set the timing for when wild peaches bloom, studying hundreds of species across seven regions in China. The findings, published Tuesday in Genome Research, help to explain how the peaches tolerate environmental stress — insight that could eventually help domesticated crops do the same. 

Scientists have warned that climate change will create lower yields for farmers, destabilizing incomes and potentially threatening the global food supply. Understanding how some plants adapt to harsh conditions could offer a boost in the future, said Zhangjun Fei, who co-led the study. 

“Breeders can use this information to develop more resilient domesticated peach trees that cope better with temperature extremes, drought and other harsh, changing conditions imposed by climate change,” said Fei, a faculty member at Boyce Thompson Institute and adjunct professor at Cornell University’s School of Integrative Plant Science. 

Fei and colleagues from China gathered 263 types of peaches, some from the wild and others known as landraces, which are locally cultivated crops improved by traditional agriculture techniques. Most of the species came from the National Peach Germplasm Repository of China, and a few dozen were from the Tibetan Plateau. 

Then, the researchers did a genomic analysis of the samples, finding more than 2,700 places in the genome that are linked to 51 environmental factors affecting how the peaches grow. Among the factors are temperature, drought and exposure to UV radiation — which can come into play especially at high altitudes.  

Peaches from one of the regions studied, where winter is particularly cold, had a built-in gene to trigger an increase in a protein called AHP5, for example, helping the peach tree survive the frigid weather. 

In arid regions, a different genetic pathway helped the plants regulate starch and sugar metabolism. The end result is a change in flavor, the researchers discovered: Drought stress made for sweeter peaches. 

“In this study, we have found the direct genetic link between drought and the sugar content of peach,” Fei said in remarks released with the research.

Taken together, understanding genetic variations for different peaches growing in various areas could help farmers grow food in harsher climates. 

Wild peaches, like the ones shown here, give researchers genetic insights helpful for climate-proof agriculture. (Credit: Yong Li, Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, via Courthouse News)

“Overall, the genetic information we found could help people breed peach trees that grow in many different and harsh environments, expanding peach’s geographic range to new regions,” Fei said.

“This finding could eventually let breeders control the bloom date of their trees, so that the peach crop is ready for harvest when the grower and the market are ready.”  

The new study highlights how agriculture can strip away some of a plant’s natural resiliency. 

As farmers bred peaches to make them sweeter and more flavorful, there was a tradeoff: The crops lost their adaptation genes. So turning toward wild varieties can help future breeding efforts to make domesticated relatives hardier. 

Understanding that relationship can help to shift agriculture efforts toward being climate change resistant. 

Climate change has already made some food crops less productive, and the effect is predicted to worsen as more shifts in the environment occur. Staples like rice and soybeans also have genes that help them adapt to tougher conditions. 

Fei’s findings can be applied to other crops in the years ahead. 

The study is relevant to “pretty much all other crops that have local landraces and/or wild relatives grown in various different environments,” Fei wrote in an email. 

Blooming date or flowering time have been “extensively studied in plant species, and many candidate genes have been identified and characterized,” Fei explained — especially in the plant Arabidopsis, a small flowering plant frequently used as a model in genetic studies. 

“However, as far as we know, ours should be the first to link a candidate blooming date-related gene with crop response to climate change,” Fei said.

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