Researchers studying the driest desert in the world have discovered that it contains a “genetic goldmine” that could help crops survive global warming. The plants in the Atacama Desert in Chile hold the key to coping with climate change.
Scientists found that the majority of plants are closely related to staples such as grains, legumes, and potatoes. This could open the door for engineering hardier fruit and vegetables, according to lead author Professor Gloria Coruzzi of New York University. “In an era of accelerated climate change,” she said, “it’s critical to uncover the genetic basis to improve crop production.”
The multinational team of scientists has identified specific genes and microbes that power the toughest plants on the planet. The findings, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, may help provide food to the world in the near future.
In a ten-year study, 32 dominant plants from across the deserts of Chile were collected and taken to a lab in Santiago where they were mapped and analyzed.
Some species of plants that grow in the Atacama Desert, known as the flowering desert to those living in the area, have developed a strategy for optimizing their intake of nitrogen. This new discovery came from studying the root systems of these plants by examining their DNA. The technique used is called phylogenomics and it reconstructs an organism’s family tree.
The study identified 265 genes whose protein sequence changed as a result of evolutionary forces. These mutations may have the ability to help plants adapt to the desert conditions, including genes that regulate response to light and photosynthesis, as well as genes that control stress response, salt regulation, and detoxification.
Since the Atacama plants are genetically closely related to staple crops like grains, legumes, and potatoes. the candidate genes identified in the study represent a genetic goldmine to engineer more resilient crops.
Studies of plant tolerance are typically done in laboratories, but scientists have learned that the species’ home environment is essential to understanding adaptive genes and molecular processes.