With temperatures rising globally, agricultural crops are feeling the stress. Warmer weather can cause a large reduction in crop yield. The Kendal Hirschi Lab at Baylor College of Medicine recently had a patent approved for a gene to make plants more tolerant to higher temperatures.
Drs. Kendal Hirschi and Ninghui Cheng discuss the importance of the patent and its environmental impact.
Helping crops beat the heat
"In commercial agriculture, we want high yield and nutritious foods. In hot temperatures, the yield can be low, which is a problem. With this new gene, we're protecting plants when the temperatures rise so they can grow better," said Cheng, assistant professor of pediatrics-nutrition at Baylor and Texas Children's Hospital.
The yield of crops is falling due to increased temperatures, as crops were not bred to withstand this kind of heat.
When this plant gene is expressed in crops, it gives them a booster shot that enables them to grow at temperatures that are not permissive for growth of traditional crops.
"When it gets hot, plants grows less. For instance, raising the temperature two degrees can cause a 50% reduction in crop yield. Two degrees doesn't sound like much, but the effect is that the crop will be lost," said Hirschi, professor of pediatrics-nutrition at Baylor and Texas Children's.
Hirschi said, "With this technology, the two-degree temperature shift will cost no yield penalty. Crop yield will remain at 100 bushels, whereas without the gene, yield would come down to 50 bushels."
As the world environment gets warmer, it becomes important to develop crop varieties that are responsive to environmental changes. Traditional breeding approaches have been effective but take decades to produce heat-tolerant crops.
With this technology, scientists can develop better crops over the course of a few years, including rice, corn wheat and soybeans.
How the new gene works
"We're speculating that high temperatures affect plants because they trigger an inflammatory response similar to what we see in our bodies. Inflammation is associated with reactive oxygen species, compounds made by cells to serve as signaling molecules for normal biologic processes. However, reactive oxygen species also can be detrimental to cells, ultimately disrupting biological processes. We think this gene reduces the reactive oxygen species that are generated during heat – it distresses the plant," Hirschi said.
The Hirschi Lab is part of the Children's Nutrition Research Center, which houses laboratories of varied disciplines, a vast array of state-of-the-art equipment, a greenhouse, observation labs and accommodations for research volunteers, a metabolic kitchen, and an elite group of scientists conducting groundbreaking research.