Do you like having plants at home but have a tough time caring for them? Meet Schrenkiella parvula, a member of the mustard family (Brassicaceae) that thrives in conditions that would kill most plants.
Schrenkiella parvula is part of the same family of important food crops such as cabbage, broccoli, and turnips. It grows on the shore of Lake Tuz in Turkey, where salt concentrations in the water are up to six times higher than in the ocean. While this might mean stress for a regular plant, Schrenkiella parvula is just chilling.
Researchers at Stanford University wanted to better understand why this specific plant grows faster under such stressful conditions. With the effects of climate change expected to intensify around the world, their findings could help other scientists to engineer crops that can grow in lower-quality soil and adapt to extreme weather, they highlighted.
“Plant live across the globe and can survive extreme environmental challenges. In order to understand how plants live across these diverse environments we wanted to develop a comparative approach that would allow us to identify the genes that make these plants unique,” Jose Dinneny, senior author of the study, told ZME Science.
A close look at the plants
Plants produce a hormone called abscisic acid, or ABA, whenever they face dry, salty, or cold conditions – all of which create water-related stress. ABA triggers specific genes that tell the plant how to respond. In their study, the researchers looked at how several plants in the mustard family, including Schrenkiella parvula, responded to ABA.
While the other plant’s growth slowed or just stopped, the roots of Schrenkiella parvula grew significantly faster. Schrenkiella parvula has a similar-sized genome to the other plants, but ABA activates different sections of its genetic code – creating a different behavior. This explains, at least partially, the different growth responses.
“Our study identifies genes and pathways that are rewired in plants and this knowledge can be used to tune plant stress responses to sustain yields even when plants are grown in marginal lands where soil quality and environmental conditions may be poor,” Dinneny told ZME Science.
The findings could be significant from an agricultural point of view. Schrenkiella parvula is related to several oilseed species that might be engineered and used as sustainable sources of jet fuel or other biofuels, the researchers argued. If these plants can adapt to harsher environmental conditions, such as degraded soil or land with accumulated salinity, there would be more places for cultivating them.
The researchers are now expanding the number of species they are using for these comparative studies between plants. The ultimate goal is to establish the extreme stress tolerance of plants like the Schrenkiella parvula – knowledge that can later be used to engineer specific traits in some of the crops that we harvest today.
The study was published in the journal Nature.