Key gene discovery may make for hardier crop plants

It is estimated that by 2025, a 40% increase in crop yield will be needed to support the ever-growing world population.

plants agriculture 224.8 (photo credit: Courtesy)
plants agriculture 224.8
(photo credit: Courtesy)
How wonderful it would be if food plants could thrive on salty water and searing heat. Now, a research team at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba has identified plant genes that can be altered to increase plant tolerance to heat, drought and salinity, facilitating survival in more arid regions. Temperature extremes, drought and saline soils are three main causes of low crop yields. It is estimated that by 2025, a 40% increase in crop yield will be needed to support the ever-growing world population. The study was conducted by Dr. Simon Barak, a lecturer and researcher at the Albert Katz Department of Dryland Biotechnologies at BGU's Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research. The results were the subject of a recent paper published in Plant Physiology. The research group focused on finding genes that control tolerance to multiple environmental stresses. Using the model Arabidopsis thaliana (a mustard-like plant whose genome was the first to be completely sequenced), they discovered that by mutating one of two genes, stress tolerance could be increased. "We manipulated these genes to enhance the plant's own tolerance systems, making the plant more resistant to salinity, heat and drought," Barak said. "As we decode the exact mechanism linking the genes to the degree of tolerance, we will understand them better, but so far we have only had a tiny glimpse." The two stress response genes are part of a family composed of about 50 genes in Arabidopsis, whose function is mostly unknown in plants. In other organisms, these same genes function by regulating gene expression - one of them similar to a gene involved in tumor growth in humans. "Ideally, we would like to create varieties of staple crops such as corn and rice that are more tolerant to multiple environmental stresses," Barak said. "The group has been researching the genome databases for some of these plants and has already found similar genes. We're looking to collaborate with biotechnology companies in the near future." SCIENCE EDITOR'S CHOICE Meanwhile, research led by Prof. Hendrik Bruins at the Blaustein Institutes was recently highlighted in the Editor's Choice section of the prestigious journal Science earlier in January. The article presents a new discovery that a destructive tsunami (an unusually large and high ocean wave caused by an undersea earthquake or volcanic eruption) hit the island of Crete in the Aegean Sea during the Minoan civilization about 3,600 years ago. According to Bruins's team, the tsunami was generated by the enormous Santorini eruption, the largest volcanic disaster in the eastern Mediterranean region during the Holocene era 12,000 years ago. The paper originally appeared in the Journal of Archeological Science The scientists identified several deposits along the coast and in the ancient city of Palaikastro that include "chaotic mixtures" of ash, pebbles, wall and building fragments, Minoan pottery, bones and other debris. The geochemistry of the ash ties it to Santorini, and the position of the debris layer is consistent with deposits by overwash in a tsunami, they found. The debris implies that the waves reached at least nine meters above sea level, but models of a tsunami and the extent of devastation are consistent with a much higher wave height, perhaps up to 35 meters, which would have overwhelmed coastal cities, Science reported. BARKING UP THE RIGHT TREE Pet owners claim they can tell what their cats and dogs feel and want according to the type of meow or bark they make. Now Hungarian scientists have developed a computer program that can classify dog barks according to various situations and can even identify sounds made by specific dogs. A recent article in the journal Animal Cognition describes the computer algorithm's ability to identify and differentiate among 6,000 barks by 14 Hungarian sheepdogs in a variety of situations. They recorded, digitized and downloaded the barks to the computer, which coded and classified them. When classifying the barks by the situation in which the dogs were placed, the software correctly identified them in almost half the cases. Recognition rates were highest when the dogs were placed in a "stranger" and "fight" situation, while when they were encouraged to "play," the system was least able to identify the sounds. The researchers suggested that the dog's different states of motivation apparently caused the different sounds. They noted that using the algorithms to analyze pet sounds could increase understanding of how animals communicate, even though they speak languages humans do not yet understand.