(CN) – Researchers in the United Kingdom are discovering how climate change alters the way key culinary plant species function during higher than normal temperatures, and it’s not good, based on findings released Monday in the journal Molecular Plant.
Higher temperatures speed up seed dispersal in plants of the cabbage and mustard families, both important in food production worldwide. The early release of seeds – known in the gardening world as “bolting” – hampers reproduction and limits crop success.
"In many crops, such as oilseed rape, premature seed dispersal is one of the major causes of crop loss. In the context of climate change, this could become increasingly severe," according to co-senior author Vinod Kumar, a plant developmental biologist at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, England.
Oilseed rape is one of the largest sources of vegetable oil in the world and is also used for biofuel and animal feed.
"This study exposes the potential vulnerabilities of crop production in the warming world and paves the way for addressing this problem,” Kumar said.
Little has been known about how global warming confuses normal plant functions, but scientists say they have discovered that the premature shedding of seeds is mediated by the INDEHISCENT gene. This gene regulates the development of seed pod tissue and promotes fruit opening.
"Seed dispersal is also a key trait that must be controlled when domesticating plants for food production," co-senior author and Innes Centre plant geneticist Lars Østergaard said.
Plants have an extraordinary ability to adjust their life cycle to suit a range of environmental conditions.
"With the prospect of climate change affecting crop performance, we wanted to understand how environmental signals such as temperature affect seed dispersal," Østergaard explained.
Xin-Ran Li, a postdoctoral researcher with Kumar and Østergaard and first author of the study, set out to investigate after one clue came from the observation that Arabidopsis plants of the Brassicaceae family mature and open their seed pods faster when grown at elevated temperatures.
They found a 5-degree rise in temperature accelerated pod shattering and seed dispersal in the plants.
"We speculate that such mechanisms have evolved to facilitate proper seasonal timing of dispersal to ensure that seeds are released under conditions that are both timely and climatically optimal for germination," Li said. "There could perhaps be a selective advantage in early maturation and dispersal in the wild."
Beyond the evolutionary implications, the findings could have broad relevance for maintaining yields of vital and economically valuable agricultural crops. The Brassicaceae family includes cabbage, mustard, broccoli, cauliflower, collard greens, Brussels sprouts, bok choy, kale, turnip, radish, and rutabaga.
"We were excited by the discovery that what we found in the model plant Arabidopsis also holds true for both crop plants, such as oilseed rape, as well as non-domesticated species from the Brassicaceae family," Kumar said. "This highlights the significance of our findings both in the wild as well as in the field."
Based on their study, the research team suggests new strategies for preparing crops for global warming. For example, plant breeding efforts could focus on developing temperature-resilient varieties capable of coping with climate change. In addition, gene-editing tools such as the CRISPR/Cas system could be used to reduce the expression of the INDEHISCENT gene, thereby delaying seed release and reducing crop loss.
Kumar and Østergaard said they plan to further investigate the molecular mechanisms underlying temperature-induced changes in seed dispersal.
"We are hopeful that by understanding this in detail, we will be better equipped to devise strategies to breed for crop resilience to climate change," Østergaard said.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.