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John Innes Centre ~ Chilling out

For farmers, knowing the best time to harvest a crop is crucial for ensuring they get the best quality produce. Many vegetables are harvested just before flowering, or brassicas such as broccoli are harvested with young or developing flower shoots.

How a plant develops is strongly influenced by the length and severity of cold it experiences over the winter. A long period of cold accelerates flowering and scientists at JIC are uncovering the genes that control the process.

In one project they are focusing on brassicas, a vegetable market worth £330 million in the UK. Brassicas are grown from Jersey, where the Gulf stream ensures it rarely falls below freezing, to Fife in an area of Scotland where the UK’s record lowest temperature was recorded.

The research will identify whether it will be possible to develop new varieties adapted to varying conditions and year-round demand, for example by breeding for a more predictable flowering time. It will also help breeders plan for warmer winters.

Plants that save water

Plant pores, called stomata, are essential for life. They helped plants make the critical move in their evolution from water to land by enabling them to regulate water loss and take up the gases they need. Stomata are tiny conduits for the Earth’s carbon and water cycles.

In Jordan over half of cultivated land is used to grow wheat. Periodic drought makes it vulnerable but if scientists were able to develop plants that close their stomata when they are starved of water, the plants will be better able to cope. Research at JIC is underway in barley and the aim is to transfer the findings to local Jordanian varieties of wheat.

Keep off our crops

Rising temperatures and increasing drought may be the most obvious threats to agriculture posed by climate change, but the greatest threat to yields could actually be from pests and diseases spreading and becoming more virulent.

The significance of this problem has only recently gained recognition and is an emerging area of research. JIC scientists are investigating how disease resistance in crops could be undermined and which diseases and insect pests might spread or become more virulent. In one project, a PhD student will identify and study the two pathogens of greatest threat to UK agriculture.

Some insect vectors, such as leafhoppers that spread small bacteria called phytoplasmas, are sensitive to cold and climate change could provide them with more opportunities to spread to new areas.

Image Credits: (L-R) Frozen Arabidopsis, Dr Brande Wulff with Aegilops sharonensis (Sharon goatgrass), the wild grass found in Tel Aviv that is resistant to Ug99, Dr Akiko Sugio and Dr Saskia Hogenhout, phytoplasma

experts (leafhopper in foreground on Saskia's finger), Brassicas © John Innes Centre

Plants become more susceptible to disease under warmer growing conditions, even when some pathogens become less virulent. At the moment, the only way to deal with this is by ‘priming’ seeds using agrochemicals. JIC scientists are doing fundamental research to better understand the mechanisms involved in the effect of temperature on crops and crop diseases in the hope that they will come up with a genetic solution.

Preserving biodiversity

A grass growing on coastal plains in Israel and South Lebanon could hold the key to stopping one of the world’s most threatening cereal diseases: the Ug99 strain of stem rust which is destroying wheat across Africa and moving into the Middle East and Asia.

“The immediate fear in terms of food security is that Ug99 will reach the Northern Punjab in Pakistan and India where nearly a fifth of the world’s wheat is grown,” said Dr Brande Wulff from the Sainsbury Laboratory on Norwich Research Park.

The wild grass is immune to Ug99 and work is underway at TSL to clone several resistance genes and introduce them as a package into wheat. “We hope to create a formidable obstacle to the pathogen,” said Wulff.

However, many populations of the grass are on the edge of extinction as the land they grow on is prime real estate.

As well as powerful resistance to crop diseases, wild plants can harbour traits for improved human nutrition, higher yields and more efficient use of nitrogen, sulphur and water.

Seed banks around the world are at the front line in preserving biodiversity. The seed collections at JIC hold more than 9500 wild and cultivated wheat varieties, 10,500 of barley, 3000 types of oats and 3300 peas from around the world.

Some varieties are over 300 years old. They would not have experienced the Mediterranean climate that persisted for much of 1540 but they may be crucial for helping crops cope with the heat waves of the future.


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