Major discovery could lead to flood-tolerant crops

24th Oct 2011

Rothamsted Research scientist, Freddie Theodoulou, has provided an important contribution to work on how plants sense low oxygen levels to survive flooding.

Experts at The University of Nottingham and the University of California at Riverside have discovered how plants sense low oxygen levels. As countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam and parts of the UK and US have fallen victim to catastrophic flooding in recent years, tolerance of crops to partial to complete submergence is a key target for global food security. Starved of oxygen, crops cannot survive a flood for long periods of time, leading to drastic reductions in yields for farmers. The break-through could help plant breeders develop high yielding flood-tolerant crops and could lead to the production of flood-tolerant crops.

Now researchers at the University of Nottingham, United Kingdom and University of California, Riverside have identified the molecular mechanism plants use to sense low oxygen levels in order to survive flooding – a finding that could lead eventually to the production of high-yielding, flood-tolerant crops, benefiting farmers, markets and consumers everywhere.

The mechanism controls key proteins in plants causing them to be unstable when oxygen levels are normal. When roots or shoots are flooded and oxygen levels drop, these proteins become stable. According to the researchers, the stability of these proteins affects metabolism in a way that enhances plant survival during a flood. When flooding subsides and plants have access to normal oxygen levels, these proteins become unstable again and are degraded.

The experiments were performed on Arabidopsis, a small flowering plant used widely in plant biology laboratories as a model organism. SUB1A-like proteins (SUB1A is the protein responsible for tolerance of complete submergence in rice) are present in other plants, including Arabidopsis. These proteins, called transcription factors, bind to DNA and turn genes on and off.

The study describing the oxygen-sensing protein turnover mechanism appeared online in the journal Nature on the 23rd October.

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