Improving Crops Through Epigenomics

Improving Crops Through Epigenomics


When a plant is under stress, it transmits
a signal that warns future generations what’s coming. That chronic stress will be a signal that
a plant could transmit to its progeny; “be ready for high light, be ready for
excessive heat, be ready for drought.” University of Nebraska-Lincoln plant
scientist Sally Mackenzie studies these epigenetic signals. What we’re trying to learn is a language,
the language that plants speak when they try to convey stress, when they try
to protect themselves from stress and when they try to enhance their growth
performance under stress conditions. By grafting a stressed tomato plant to
another segment that isn’t under stress, Mackenzie isolates and studies the
signals. And then biochemically we can isolate that
signal and understand how one segment of a plant communicates information to
another about stress. Once we understand those signals, then
we understand how to modify plants to be prepared for those signals. Mackenzie and her colleagues modify plants
epigenetically and change their characteristics. A specialized machine
measures factors like growth. So we can be extremely quantitative in
knowing exactly just what kind of changes we’ve made and how the plant has
responded. Mackenzie’s research attracted the
attention of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. A nearly three million dollar grant will
help develop crops that grow well in places like Africa. And right now we’re trying to learn
different ways to introduce our little stress signal, and we’re trying to find
ways to enhance crop performance as a consequence of that stress signal. Improvements that enhance plant growth
can also be applied to crops grown in the United States. It’s research that will help feed a
rapidly growing population faced with diminishing resources.

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