In this 2007 file photo, a farmer laments over his destroyed crop in Tamin Nadu. (c) M. Srinath

In this 2007 file photo, a farmer laments over his destroyed crop in Tamin Nadu. (c) M. Srinath

Floods are a major hazard to crops worldwide. This year alone, billions of dollars worth of crops came to waste after catastrophic floods raided Pakistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Australia, Thailand, the UK and America, and famines have hit millions of people worldwide as a result of ruined agriculture. What if you could, however, engineer crops that could resist floods and steadily return to their usual cycle after waters retreat? Scientists at University of Nottingham and the University of California, Riverside have made a break through in this sense, as they may have stumbled across the key to engineering flood-resistant crops.

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“We have identified the mechanism through which reduced oxygen levels are sensed. The mechanism controls key regulatory proteins called transcription factors that can turn other genes on and off. It is the unusual structure of these proteins that destines them for destruction under normal oxygen levels, but when oxygen levels decline, they become stable. Their stability results in changes in gene expression and metabolism that enhance survival in the low oxygen conditions brought on by flooding. When the plants return to normal oxygen levels, the proteins are again degraded, providing a feedback control mechanism,” explained Nottingham University crop scientist Michael Holdsworth.

Basically, the engineered plants in the researchers’ lab can sense low oxygen levels and change their metabolism accordingly to survive in the new conditions, a brilliant feat which came more or less via an adjacent research, which involved investigating the regulation of gene expression during seed germination. Holdsworth now hopes that the crops of the future will be safer against folds, as years from now the protein turnover mechanism will be fully understood and prone to manipulation.

“At this time, we do not know for sure the level of conservation across plants of the turnover mechanism in response to flooding. We have quite a bit of assurance from our preliminary studies, however, that there is cross-species conservation. Our experiments on Arabidopsisshow that manipulation of the pathway affects low oxygen stress tolerance. There is no reason why these results cannot be extrapolated to other plants and crops. What we plan to do next is to nail down this mechanism more clearly,” said Bailey-Serres, a geneticist at the University of California.

University of Nottingham