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Genetic Goldmine May Help Crops Survive Global Warming

Plants growing in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile hold the key to coping with climate change, according to new research.

The coastal desert - between the Pacific coast and the Andes mountains - is an arid plateau. Yet, despite only receiving 0.01 centimeters of rainfall a year, when Spring comes around, part of this inhospitable desert is covered in a carpet of flowers. Known locally as the 'flowering desert', there are more than 200 species of plants that miraculously appear.

This phenomenon has baffled scientists for many years, but a team of researchers are finally figuring out what's behind this 'impossible' occurance and have identified specific genes and microbes that power the toughest plants on the planet, publishing their results in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in a paper entitled Plant ecological genomics at the limits of life in the Atacama Desert.

Lead author Professor Gloria Coruzzi, of New York University, said, “In an era of accelerated climate change, it’s critical to uncover the genetic basis to improve crop production and resilience under dry and nutrient-poor conditions.”

Co-lead author Prof Rodrigo Gutierrez, of The Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, said, “Our study of plants in the Atacama Desert is directly relevant to regions around the world that are becoming increasingly arid, with factors such as drought, extreme temperatures, and salt in water and soil posing a significant threat to global food production.”

As some of the Atacama plants are closely related to staple crops, including grains, legumes, and potatoes, this research may potentially be very good news in the world's efforts to produce hardier food crops.

Meanwhile, in further positive news about the future of agriculture, Kansas based Land Institute says that it has created an ecologically beneficial perennial grain. It's a form of wheatgrass, but what makes it stand out from other commercial crops is that it’s grown from a single seed that regrows year after year. Unlike wheat or barley, which must be replanted each season, Kernza regrows itself, eliminating soil-degrading replanting methods and reducing the need for water, fertilizer, and energy. Furthermore, its deep root systems also extend down ten feet, making it great for storing carbon. Read more...


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