Tag Archives: Crops

Art history is uncovering hidden patterns of fruit and vegetable evolution

(A) Facsimile of wall painting from the tomb of Sennedjem at Deir el-Medina (original ca. 1293–1213
BCE). (B) The Harvesters by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1565.

For years, biologists have been tapping into the genomes of both modern and ancient crops in order to trace their long and rich history — from wild plains to your dinner table. However, there are still significant gaps in the timeline of both fruit and vegetable evolution, despite the availability of sophisticated genetic sequencing technology.

An unlikely pair of researchers are now seeking to address these gaps using a unique approach. In a new study, Ive De Smet, a plant biologist at the VIB-UGent Center for Plant Systems Biology in Belgium, and David Vergauwen, an art history lecturer at Amarant in Belgium, demonstrate how old paintings can be highly useful in tracking how fruit and veggies evolved across the last centuries.

Are you intrigued? If so, you’re not alone. In fact, you’re encouraged to lend a hand as the two researchers are looking to the public to extend a helping hand by providing pictures of paintings that depict plant-based food.

Evolution hidden in art

 Ive De Smet (left) and David Vergauwen in a field of wheat, one species that has been the focus of their research. Credit: Liesbeth Everaert.

If you were to travel back in time ten thousand years, you would have been in for a big surprise. Virtually, all the succulent fruits and savory vegetables we all dearly love looked nothing like they do today. In fact, it took countless generations of selective breeding to turn measly wild plants into highly productive food crops. For instance, modern corn is 1,000 times larger and contains at least four times more sugar than the wild variety that used to grow on the plains of Mexico ten thousand years ago.

Sometimes these transitions are obvious, but other times the jigsaw puzzle is more challenging to piece together, which is why biologists are grateful for any input they can find — so why should art be an exception?

For De Smet and Vergauwen, who have been friends for 30 years since high school, this uncanny union is not at all as esoteric as it may sound. Their foray into the intersection between art and evolutionary biology first began during an unsuspecting trip to the Hermitage Museum in Saint-Petersburg.

“A couple of years back, we were in Saint-Petersburg (Russia). At the Hermitage we started a discussion about the fruits depicted by Frans Snyders. The question was: did this particular piece of fruit look like this in the 17th century or was Snyders a bad painter? It was well worth the discussion, since the next day, on the train to Tsarkoe Selo, we started to wonder if there were other fruits or vegetables that had similar stories behind them. Years later, we are still investigating. It turned out to be a valuable (and hardly used) approach to combine our expertise on the level of (art) history and genetics. Maybe there are not that many art historians who have biologists as their best friend and the other way around?” De Smet told ZME Science in an email.

Intrigued by the ideas they were discussing back and forth, the two researchers scoured the available literature for any work that combines art history and genetics. They hit a blank wall.

“So, we started to do some digging and I guess we’ve never stopped digging. Some friends play tennis together or go fishing. Ive and David visit museums, meet other scholars, look at paintings and study the history of our modern foods,” De Smet recounted.

Content that they found a niche, the two researchers set to work right away looking for clues that might inform them what fruits and vegetables looked like in the past.

For example, their investigations of ancient Egyptian depictions of watermelons showed that the fruit had the familiar light and dark green stripes even during those times.

In conjunction with the DNA sequencing of a watermelon leaf retrieved from an Egyptian tomb, this suggests that the fruit was domesticated as early as 4,000 years ago. But despite its similar appearance to modern varieties, this ancestral strain was similar in taste to cucumbers, predating sweet melons by thousands of years, according to a 2019 paper authored by De Smet and Vergauwen.

Be on the lookout for paintings depicting plants

Although old artwork can provide valuable clues as to how plants used to look centuries ago, or even before their domestication, such assessments aren’t at all straightforward.

Painters often depict the world with an artistic license, which makes their artwork unreliable as an accurate reflection of the world. Even some modern painters can’t be trusted. For instance, if you trust Picasso to depict a watermelon as it really looks, you’ll surely be in for a surprise. This is why expertise in art history is essential.

“How do we know a painting is reliable? If you look at a cubist work by Picasso to figure out what a pear looked like in the early 20th century, you will be disappointed. That is where art history comes in. Some paintings are reliable in only some aspects, some are totally reliable and others not at all, like the Picasso. The works by Jeroen Bosch might show a morphologically correct depiction of a strawberry, but it might be taller than the people next to it. It would be fanciful to suppose that there were indeed any such large strawberries, but if the strawberry is morphologically correct, we might draw conclusions from that,” De Smet told ZME Science.

“So how do we know what to believe? That is a matter of trusting the evidence. If a painter depicts clothes correctly and we can verify that with specimens from a museum or other paintings, if a painter depicts musical instruments (violins or harpsichords) that are still in a museum and they match up, if a painter depicts architecture that is still around (say the central market place of Antwerp) and it checks out, then we do not have a reason to suppose that we would go about his work in a totally different way when it comes to perishables like fruits and vegetables. It is a simple question of checking the reliability of your source and trusting the evidence. And often it is also a matter of numbers. If something is depicted only once it might be an oddity (or a poor-quality painter), but if something pops up regularly it might indeed be how it (at least in part) looked like.”

This is why De Smet and Vergauwen hope to inspire people to participate in a citizen science project by supplying pictures of paintings depicting fruits and vegetables.

“We can only travel so much, so this is one of the reasons why we started this Crowd Sourcing campaign, the tap into resources we would normally not be able to,” said De Smet.

“We cannot be everywhere. Sure, we have visited the Hermitage, the Louvre, the National Gallery in London, etc., but if an interesting 17th-century tomato is depicted in the kitchen of a Spanish monastery that is almost never open to visitors, we run the risk of never finding out about that. That is why we need help. We want to find as much material as possible. Catalogues are of no help, because a mythological painting with Perseus freeing Andromeda can have a perfectly fine orange in the background, but the description, the title or a small picture of that painting will never give us a clue of where to find it. We need people to notice it. Then we need them to report their findings. We came up with this citizen science idea quite early on in our project and we are looking at ways to finance an app to help people to help us. There is still so much to do.”

That’s not to say that old paintings can reveal instances of plant evolution that genomic analyses have missed, although this isn’t beyond the realm of plausibility.  Instead, art history and genetics can join hands to construct more accurate timelines of when a particular fruit or vegetable crop enters common usage.

Take carrots, for instance. Today, the popular vegetable is ubiquitously recognized due to its orange appearance thanks to high carotenoid contents. However, 17th-century paintings from the Dutch Golden Century depict carrots in white, red, yellow, and orange. This isn’t some creative fluke — that’s really how carrots used to look when the painters were alive.

(A) Pieter Aertsen, The Vegetable Seller (1567). The drawing with color overlay indicates the positions of orange or purple carrots on the painting and a likely black radish or
parsnip (grey). (B,C) illustrate some of the major components leading to carrot colour. The diagrams highlight the enzymes and/or major products in carotenoid (B) and anthocyanin pathways (C). Credit: Trends in Plant Science, Vergauwen and De Smet.

What’s intriguing is that this approach can be extended for virtually all instances of evolution that may have been captured by art, from plants to animals. But, for now, the two researchers are content to stick to what they know best: art history, genetics, and a passion for visiting museums.

“I guess we will never stop visiting museums. This was a hobby of ours long before we started this project. The only difference is that now we can tell our wives that we have to take a trip “for work’,” the researchers said.

So you’re an art aficionado but also a science nerd? Then drop a line to the researchers at artgeneticsdavidive@gmail.com — your help and keen eye will be surely appreciated. 

Nanoplastics can contaminate plants, making them smaller, shorter

New research reports that microplastics can and do accumulate in plants. Such findings have implications for ecology as well as food safety.

Image via Pixabay.

Micro- and nanoplastics in water and seafood is a growing concern. They are present in ocean water at very high levels, and we ingest an impressive amount of them every year.

Now, researchers are looking into how these particles behave in terrestrial environments, as well. A new study reports that they can accumulate in plants. This impairs their growth and reduces their nutritional value, the authors explain. Such findings suggest that fruits and vegetables can act as a carrier for microplastics, and point to a possible impact on crop yield as we release more and more plastics.


“Our findings provide direct evidence that nanoplastics can accumulate in plants, depending on their surface charge,” says Baoshan Xing, a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and corresponding author of the paper.

“Plant accumulation of nanoplastics can have both direct ecological effects and implications for agricultural sustainability and food safety.”

For the study, the team grew Arabidopsis thaliana (thale cress, a model organism) in plots of soil with nanoplastics. These particles were “fluorescently labeled” to allow tracking. After a seven-week growing period, the team compared the plants’ weights, heights, root growth, and levels of chlorophyll.

The fresh weight of plants grown in soils with nanoplastics were between 41.7% and 51.5% lower and they had shorter roots than the controls, the team explains. Exposure to high concentration of nanoplastics also caused plants to grow “significantly shorter than the control” and those exposed to lower concentrations.

The growing zone of the roots after four days of incubation (with different types and concentrations of plastic particles mixed into their soil).
Image credits Xiao-Dong Sun et al., (2020), Nature.

Particles tended to concentrate in certain tissues, depending on their electrical charge. Negatively-charged ones “were observed frequently in the apoplast and xylem” (both involved in transporting fluids around the plant), while positively-charged ones concentrated in the tips of the roots. The latter, while only present at lower levels, have a higher impact on the plant’s health overall, the team estimates.

“Our experiments have given us evidence of nanoplastics uptake and accumulation in plants in the laboratory at the tissue and molecular level using microscopic, molecular and genetic approaches. We have demonstrated this from root to shoot,” says Xing.

With nanoparticles being present in water, they will inevitably find their way into soils as well, especially in irrigated croplands. Their size and electric charge seem to be the main determining factors of whether they’re absorbed and how much they damage the plant.

The team showed that cress can take in plastic particles of up to 200 nanometers, which is way smaller than most microplastic particles. However, we do have evidence of plastic degrading into ever-smaller bits in water. If they break down similarly on dry land, or if irrigation water is contaminated with nanoplastics, they will contaminate crops as well, leading to reduced yields and food insecurity.

The paper “Differentially charged nanoplastics demonstrate distinct accumulation in Arabidopsis thaliana” has been published in the journal Nature.

Wasps are effective pest controls, a new study shows

Although you may be terrified of them, common, social wasp species could help keep our crops pest-free, reports a new study.

A hornet queen.
Image credits David Hablützel.

The blue and black predators can act as solid pest control for at least two high-value crops: maize and sugarcane. While the experiment was carried out in Brazil, the team explains that wasps are found virtually all over the world and can easily be ‘recruited’ on small or large-scale farms to control a range of common pest insects.

The Buzz of victory

“There’s a global need for more sustainable methods to control agricultural pests, to reduce over-reliance on pesticides or imported pest controllers. Wasps are very common, but understudied, so here we’re providing important evidence of their economic value as pest controllers,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Robin Southon from University College London’s (UCL) Centre for Biodiversity & Environmental Research.

The study was carried out in Brazil with the help of researchers at São Paulo State University and Universidade de São Paulo; the team explains that it is the first controlled experiment in semi-natural conditions on the subject, as it was performed on an outdoor research site. The maize crops used in the study were infested with fall armyworms, while the sugarcane crops were infested with sugarcane borers. As a pest control, the team used the social paper wasp, a hunting wasp common to the area.

All in all, the wasps seem to have been effective. Their presence reduced the pest populations and led to the crops suffering less damage. The team further found that even pests which already bored inside the plants (and weren’t present on their surfaces) were removed by the wasps.

The findings definitely suggest that the wasps have potential as pest control agents and could be used as part of a larger, integrated pest management mechanism. The team is especially excited for their use as wasps are native species and naturally part of many ecosystems today, which would make them a much more sustainable and environmentally-friendly alternative to today’s pesticides. Not only that, but the insects can also be a “cheap, accessible form of pest control, particularly helpful to small-scale or subsistence farmers in countries like Brazil, who could attract and encourage wasps to establish themselves,” according to co-author Professor Fabio Nascimento, who hosted the study at his labs in São Paulo State University.

The team plans to continue their research using larger, active agricultural fields. Wasps today are in decline across the world, similarly bees. The team notes that wasp loss can lead to a sharp increase in aphids, flies, and other species they prey on.

“This isn’t just about agriculture—this is about wasps in general and their role in regulating insect populations,” says Dr. Seirian Sumner (UCL Centre for Biodiversity & Environment Research), the study’s senior author. “Even your backyard garden could benefit from a more wasp-friendly attitude—instead of killing wasps and using pesticides on your plants, treat your local wasps as the helpful pest controllers they are.”

The paper “Social wasps are effective biocontrol agents of key lepidopteran crop pests” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

Essential oils, a novel way to deal with a major pest

When finding their plant hosts, agricultural insect pest always seeks familiar scents. But they can also be repelled by odors from other plant species, according to new research, which offers a new framework for exploiting plant odors to repel insect pests.

Broccoli, one of the affected crops. Credit: Living in Monrovia (Flickr)


A team at the University of Vermont worked on the swede midge, a small fly which has become a problem for farmers from the Northeast that work with cabbage-family crops like broccoli and kale. They discovered that a set of essential oils were effective at repelling the midge, such as garlic and spearmint.

“People often think more aromatic plant oils, like mint, basil and lavender will repel insects, but usually there is no rhyme or reason for choosing,” says senior author Yolanda Chen. “It turns out that as we go along the family tree, plants that are more distantly related from the host plant are generally more repellent.”

In order to survive, the small fly feeds on the brassica plant family, which includes a set of popular vegetables such as cabbage and brussels sprouts. If the midge laid its eggs on the wrong plant, it would mean the death of its offspring, according to observations by the researchers.

The midge’s larvae affect the plant’s control system, causing distorted growth – such as brown scarring. But, unfortunately for farmers, they can’t observe the problem until it’s too late and the midge has dropped off the plant. The tiny fly is known to cause crop losses of up to 100% in some areas of the US and Canada.

Trying to deal with the midge, farmers have turned to insecticides, which has been associated with a decline in bees. Organic farmers found no methods and just stopped growing the vulnerable crops. This led to the team at Vermont University to find new methods to control the small fly.

“It’s hard to get away from using insecticides because they’re good at killing insects,” said lead author Chase Stratton, who is now a postdoctoral researcher at The Land Institute in Kansas. “But plants have been naturally defending against insect herbivores for millions of years. Why are we so arrogant to think we can do it better than plants?”

Stratton and her colleagues were able to identify essential oils from 18 different plants that vary in their degree of relatedness to brassica host crops. They hypothesized that oils from plants that are more distantly related to brassicas would have more diverse odors and be more repellent.

They spent time observing how midges acted when facing broccoli plants that had been sprayed with each of the essential oils. The small fly, they discovered, was less likely to lay eggs on broccoli plants that had been treated with essential oils, compared to the untreated plants.

“Biologically, it makes sense that midges would be able to detect and avoid these plants because the similar odors would make it easier for them to misinterpret these plants as hosts, which would be deadly for their offspring,” said Stratton. “For swede midge, garlic appears to be one of the most promising repellents, particularly because certified organic products using garlic are already available for growers.”

Young crop.

Global food production is already being impacted by climate change, paper reports

Climate change is already impacting our crops, new research reports. Some regions are faring better than others, the team explains, but overall, it’s causing a drop in how many calories the world’s top 10 crops are producing per year.

Young crop.

Image via Pixabay.

Barley, cassava, maize, oil palm, rapeseed, ride, sorghum, soybean, sugarcane, and wheat collectively supply around 83% of all calories produced on croplands. The bad news is that these crops are expected to drop in productivity in warmer climate conditions, which are in store for the future. A new study, however, comes to show that these ill effects are already being felt — and some regions and countries are faring far worse than others.

Sweating out the calories

“There are winners and losers, and some countries that are already food insecure fare worse,” says lead author Deepak Ray of the University of Minnesota’s (UoM) Institute on the Environment.

The team drew on high-resolution global crop statistics databases at the UoM’s Institute on the Environment to track how global crop production figures have fluctuated over time. The researchers also used reported weather data to evaluate the potential impact of observed climate change on crop productivity.

Based on these figures the team estimated which geographical areas are most at risk of experiencing lower productivity and food insecurity in a warmer-climate future. This study is also relevant for our efforts to implement the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals of ending hunger and limiting the effects of climate change, the authors add.

Here are the highlights of the study:

  • Observed climate change had a significant impact on the yield of the world’s top 10 crops. This ranged from decreases between 13.4% (for oil palm) and increases of 3.5% (for soybean).
  • The overall reduction in productivity of consumable food calories for all the 10 crops is around 1% (around 35 trillion kcal/year).
  • Europe, Southern Africa, and Australia are mostly experiencing a drop in food production due to climate change; Asia, Northern, and Central America are experiencing mixed effects, while Australia is generally seeing positive effects.
  • impacts of climate change on global food production are mostly negative in Europe, Southern Africa, and Australia, generally positive in Latin America, and mixed in Asia and Northern and Central America.
  • Half of all countries battling with food insecurity today are experiencing decreases in crop production. Some affluent industrialized countries in Western Europe are also seeing declines in food production.
  • Recent climate change has increased the yields of certain crops in some areas of the upper Midwest United States.

“This is a very complex system, so a careful statistical and data science modeling component is crucial to understand the dependencies and cascading effects of small or large changes,” says co-author Snigdhansu Chatterjee of the University of Minnesota’s School of Statistics.

The Institute’s Global Landscapes Initiative has previously produced global-scale research that has been put to use by international organizations such as the U.N. and the World Bank to evaluate global food security and environmental challenges. The present findings, however, have implications for major food companies, commodity traders and the countries in which they operate, as well as for citizens worldwide, the team notes.

“The research documents how change is already happening, not just in some future time,” says Ray.

The paper “Climate change has likely already affected global food production” has been published in the journal PLOS One.

Plant on dry soil.

Researchers hack plants to use less water so we don’t starve when climate change hits hard

Researchers are getting ready for the mother of all dry spells — by making plants require less water to grow.

Plant on dry soil.

Image via Pixabay.

Anthropic climate change is already barring its fangs at us, and they are dry indeed. A preview of what’s in store is recently unfolded in Cape Town, South Africa. The Western Cape region of South Africa has been experiencing severe droughts since 2015, and because of that, the city is realistically looking at a Day Zero scenario — a day where the municipal water supply will be dry as bone.

That situation could become common in many parts of the world, at least until water cycles set down into their new mold. Until then, it’s vital that we ensure there’s enough water for everyone to drink. A team of researchers from the University of Illinois, Urbana are trying to reduce the amount of water we use on our crops. In a new paper, they report having genetically engineered a prototype tobacco crop that uses 25% less water for essentially the same harvest.

“We tested them in the field and we didn’t see a big penalty — the plants were not significantly smaller than the wild type,” said lead researcher Katarzyna Glowacka.

They quenched the plants’ thirst by modifying the expression of a protein involved in the behavior of stomata — small pores on the leaves of plants that take in CO2 and spew out oxygen and water. Lab experiments showed that greater expression of the protein (called Photosystem II Subunit Subunit S, or ‘PsbS’) restricted stoma’s ability to open, keeping water inside the plant’s cells without affecting the intake of CO2. After some time tweaking around with PsbS expression, the team managed to spike the prototype tobacco’s water efficiency by 25%. Tobacco is widely used as a model plant for similar studies because its fast lifecycle means researchers don’t have to wait around for it to grow very long.

“Our next step is to look at C4 crops […] like corn, soy bean, sugarcane, sorghum,” says Dr Glowacka.

“In tobacco it works and it should work the same way in other plants. In C4 plants, which are most [food] yielding plants like corn and sugarcane, it has even bigger promise.”

The C4 plants that Dr. Glowacka mentions are better at fixing CO2 during photosynthesis than most other crops and the researchers think their stomata can be manipulated to a greater extent that the prototype tobacco because of this.

However, the current research was carried out in controlled environments, where the plants were given plenty of water and sunlight. More extensive studies are needed to assess the potential of this approach in real-world scenarios, especially trials in free range conditions.

Still, for now, the findings hold great potential for the future. The challenge is to produce a lot more food than we do today, without a sizeable increase in land or water use — because we simply don’t have much to spare of either of those.

The paper “Photosystem II Subunit S overexpression increases the efficiency of water use in a field-grown crop” has been published in the journal Nature.

Wheat crop.

The world’s farms are dominated by only four crops

Crop fields around the world are becoming increasingly uniform, and that’s a problem.

Wheat crop.

Image via Pixabay.

The world as a whole is increasingly narrowing agricultural production to only a few crops and lineages according to new research from the University of Toronto (UoT). This not only impacts the contents of our plates, but also makes global food production less resilient against pests and disease.

More of the same

“What we’re seeing is large monocultures of crops that are commercially valuable being grown in greater numbers around the world,” says lead researcher Adam Martin, assistant professor of  ecologist in the Department of Physical and Environmental Sciences at UoT Scarborough.

“So large industrial farms are often growing one crop species, which are usually just a single genotype, across thousands of hectares of land.”

The team worked from data recorded by the U.N.’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), quantifying which crops were grown on large-scale industrial farms globally from 1961 to 2014. While crop diversity in each region has increased — North America, for example, now grows 93 different crops, whereas the 1960s it was only 80 crops — it has gone down on a global scale. Large scale, industrialized farms in Asia or Europe, for example, are looking more and more like those in North or South America.

Soybeans, wheat, rice, and corn occupy just under 50% of the planet’s agricultural lands, the team reports. The rest is divided among 152 different crops. There is also very little genetic diversity within individual crops. In North America, six individual genotypes comprise about 50% of all corn crops, the team explains.

The 1980s saw a massive peak in global crop diversity as different types of plants were being sowed in new places on an industrial scale. This peak had largely flattened by the 1990s, and crop diversity across regions have declined ever since.

So, why is this a problem? Several reasons. The first is that it affects global food sovereignty, the team explains.

“If regional crop diversity is threatened, it really cuts into people’s ability to eat or afford food that is culturally significant to them,” says Martin.

Secondly, it’s also an ecological issue. If farms are dominated by a few lineages of crops, that makes the global food supply extremely susceptible to pests or diseases. All bananas (that we cultivate) today, for example, are clones —  they’re all genetically identical. And they’re being wiped out by the Panama disease, a fungicide-resistant fungus.

Martin hopes to expand his research to look at patterns of crop diversity in the context of individual nations. He says there’s a policy angle to consider, since government decisions that favour growing certain kinds of crops may contribute to a lack of diversity.

“It will be important to look at what governments are doing to promote more different types of crops being grown, or at a policy-level, are they favouring farms to grow certain types of cash crops,” he says.

The paper “Regional and global shifts in crop diversity through the Anthropocene” has been published in the journal PLOS ONE.


Surge in pest resistance is making biotech crops worldwide less effective

Since they were first introduced in 1996, about two billion acres of so-called ‘Bt crops’ have been planted around the world. These biotech crops — most frequently corn, soybean, or cotton — are engineered to contain genes from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis that produce proteins toxic to insects. These proteins kill common pests like caterpillars or beetles but are harmless to humans. While this approach has proven successful in improving yield and reducing pesticide use, widespread fears that the Bt proteins might trigger an evolutionary dash for resistance in pests have proven well founded, according to a comprehensive review. Pests around some crops haven’t developed resistance, however, which means there’s reason to believe Bt crops could prove effective for a long time.


Credit: Pixabay.

The international team of researchers analyzed 36 cases of biotech crops encompassing 15 pest species in 10 countries on every continent except Antarctica. The global data on Bt crop use and pest response suggests that as of 2016, the efficacy of Bt crops was substantially reduced in 16 out of 36 cases, compared to only three such cases in 2005. The pests evolved resistance in only five years, on average.

However, in 17 other cases, the pests did not evolve resistance to the Bt crops, even though some had stayed in place for two decades. The remaining three cases experienced some statistically significant resistance but not nearly as severe as elsewhere and, thus, were classified as ‘early warning of resistance’.

The biotech arms race

Since Bt crops were introduced, scientists have advocated incorporating so-called ‘refuges’ into farmers’ strategy. Refuges are just standard, non-Bt crops that are planted alongside the engineered variety. Pests that attack the refuges are not exposed to the Bt toxins but at some point, they will breed with insects that attack the engineered crops. Due to recessive inheritance, mating between a resistant parent and a susceptible parent will likely yield offspring that can still be killed by the Bt crop.

Computer models have shown that refuges ought to be effective at delaying pest resistance in biotech crops, but their value has proven controversial among academics. In the U.S., for instance, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has relaxed its requirements for plating refuges.

The new review, however, plainly shows that refuges work. Most of the crops that didn’t show signs of pest resistance employed sound refuge strategies.

“Perhaps the most compelling evidence that refuges work comes from the pink bollworm, which evolved resistance rapidly to Bt cotton in India, but not in the U.S.,” said Bruce Tabashnik, a researcher at University of Arizona’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and lead author of the new stuy published in Nature Biotechnology. 

“Same pest, same crop, same Bt proteins, but very different outcomes,” he added in a public statement.

Southwestern US farmers had an effective refuge strategy while India didn’t — the country has some refuge plating rules, but farmer compliance is low. The latter saw significant increases in pest resistance.

While the study shows pest resistance to Bt crops is evolving rapidly, there are also some encouraging news. The most recent biotech crops produced a novel type of Bt protein called vegetative insecticidal protein (VIP). Previously, all other Bt proteins belonged to a totally different group called crystalline proteins. Since the two groups are worlds apart, cross-resistance between pest is virtually nil, the scientists reported.

Tabashnik says that we’re only beginning to use systematic data analyses to manage pest resilience but, even so, results are encouraging. After all, scientists always expect pests to adapt to whatever we throw at them, be it GM crops or otherwise. “However, if we can delay resistance from a few years to a few decades, that’s a big win,” he underscored.

“These plants have been remarkably useful, and resistance has generally evolved slower than most people expected,” Tabashnik said. “I see these crops as an increasingly important part of the future of agriculture. The progress made provides motivation to collect more data and to incorporate it in planning future crop deployments.”

“We’ve also started exchanging ideas and information with scientists facing related challenges, such as resistance to herbicides in weeds and resistance to drugs in cancer cells,” Tabashnik said.

Scientific reference: “Insect Resistance to Transgenic Crops: Second Decade Surge and Future Prospects,” Nature Biotechnology. DOI: 10.1038/nbt.3974.

Grain crop.

Early farmers probably didn’t really know how to select crops — but they were very lucky

It’s possible that early farmers didn’t actively select for better crops, and crop domestication simply ‘happened’ under their noses, a new paper reports.

Grain crop.

Ahh, agriculture. I’m a huge fan. It comes with some very harsh drawbacks, for the environment and our way of life both, but it also underpins pretty much everything about human society. Agriculture allows for some people to generate a food surplus, which means that other people don’t have to hunt or scavenge, so they can focus on more noble pursuits — such as writing for ZME Science. Again, a huge fan.

The agricultural revolution was a defining point in human history, and yet we don’t know very much about it. One aspect, in particular, piqued the interest of researchers from the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures at the University of Sheffield — crop domestication.

Why does this matter

If I’d ask you to imagine a hunter-gatherer plying his trade you’ll probably imagine a guy like you and me, dressed in furs, picking let’s say apples from a tree. Big, juicy, shiny apples. Which is oh so, so wrong. That’s the image we associate with apples because it’s how we’ve seen them in stores and on the internet and wherever our whole lives.


Pictured: not a wild apple.

But that’s not at all how they looked back then. The fruits (and probably prey) hunter-gatherers had access to were wild, less tasty, tiny, and most importantly less energy dense.

The stuff we eat today would blow our stone-age ancestors’ fur socks away, and it’s all due to crop domestication. Through constant artificial selection, farmers have coaxed their crops into producing more ‘food’ and less of anything else — for example, the grains we plant today have lost their wild seed dispersal capacity, and rely completely on humans to spread. This dependency allowed farmers to create better crops over time — and better crops provided an exponential increase in crop yield compared to wild crops.

The transition from wild to domesticated crops happened during the early days of farming in the Stone Age, some 10,000 years ago, and there’s still a lot of questions about the issue we just don’t have an answer to. Professor Colin Osborne from the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures at the University of Sheffield and his team set out to answer one particularly interesting one: did early farmers know they were breeding certain characteristics into their crops or did these domesticated traits take root under their noses as the plants adapted to being taken care of?

My wild days are over

The team looked at seed sizes for a range of crops believed to have been domesticated in antiquity to find evidence of domestication. For seed crops, they looked at a range of cereals and pulses domesticated in different parts of the world. For vegetable crops, they analyzed both species that are typically grown from seed, and species that are vegetatively propagated (from cuttings/roots, such as potatoes). Fruit crops were not included in these comparisons.

The theory is that if people selected for better crops, the effects would be seen in leaves, stems, roots, or fruit, which are eaten as food. Vegetables are propagated by planting seeds, cuttings, or tubers but harvested for the parts I listed above, so seed size is not a direct determinant of yield. As such, domestication should not have had any effect on the seeds, as they had no particular nutritional use.

Changes in vegetable seed sizes instead must have stemmed from natural selection processes acting on cultivated crops, or from genetic links between them and other characteristics of the crops, such as plant or organ size — i.e. if the size of seeds is directly tied to the size of the plant and farmers select for larger plants, seed size would also unintentionally increase.

The researchers found strong evidence in support of a general enlargement of seeds alongside domestication. Domesticated maize seeds are 15 times larger than their wild counterparts, soybeans are seven times larger, while barley, wheat and other grain crops showed a more modest increase (by 60% and 15% respectively), they report. The team notes that “domestication had a significantly larger overall effect in grain than vegetable crops.”

“We found strong evidence for a general enlargement of seeds due to domestication across seven vegetable species,” said Professor Osborne.

“This is especially stunning in a crop like a sweet potato, where people don’t even plant seeds, let alone harvest them. The size of this domestication effect falls completely within the range seen in cereals and pulse grains like lentils and beans, raising the possibility that at least part of the seed enlargement in these crops also evolved during domestication without deliberate foresight from early farmers.”

The findings suggests that some, if not the majority of changes that took place in our staple crops during the early days of agriculture took place without deliberate selection from farmers. So overall, it’s likely that unintended selection was the main driver of crop evolution and crop yield increase in early farms. Understanding how crops evolved will help us better guide selection efforts in the future.

The full paper “Unconscious selection drove seed enlargement in vegetable crops” has been published in the journal Evolution Letters.

Barley’s full genome sequenced after decade-long research effort

After more than a decade of work, an international team consisting of over 70 researchers is poised to make your beer fuller and your Scotch neater — they have successfully sequenced the complete genome of barley, a major crop and key ingredient in the two brews.


Image credits Hans Braxmeier.

We’ve got a long and alcohol-imbibed history with barley. It has been a staple crop for us and animal feed as well as underpinned breweries ever since the agricultural revolution. Today, barley is a major component in all-purpose flour for bread and pastries, graces breakfast tables as an ingredient in cereals, is the prime ingredient in single malt Scotch, lends beer its color, body, the protein to form a good head, and the natural sugars needed for its fermentation.

Selective breeding has allowed farmers to develop tastier, more nutritious barley with a greater yield over that time – but there’s still room for improvement, as the crop’s genome was barley known, limiting the effectiveness of breeding efforts.

Now, the International Barley Genome Sequencing Consortium (IBSC) a team of 77 researchers from around the world report that they’ve successfully sequenced the full genome of barley families heavily relied on for malting processes. This allowed them to pinpoint the bits of code that formed “genetic bottlenecks” during domestication, and further breeding efforts focus on increasing diversity in these areas and make the crops even better. It should also help scientists working with other crops in the grass family such as rice, wheat, or oats.

It may not sound like a huge accomplishment until you consider that barley’s genome is almost double the size of a human’s, and large swathes of it (around 80%) is composed of highly repetitive sequences, which made it incredibly hard for the team to focus on specific locations in the genome. The team had to make major advances in and sequencing technology, algorithmic design, and computing for the task at hand. Their findings provide knowledge of more than 39,000 barley genes.

“This takes the level of completeness of the barley genome up a huge notch,” said Timothy Close, a professor of genetics at UC Riverside and co-author of the paper.

“It makes it much easier for researchers working with barley to be focused on attainable objectives, ranging from new variety development through breeding to mechanistic studies of genes.”

One finding, in particular, surprised the scientists, and it has to do with the malting process. This involves germinating and then crushing the grains and is a key step in brewing. During germination, seeds produce amylase, a protein which breaks down their store of starch into simple sugars – which will ferment into alcohol. The team’s sequencing efforts revealed there was much more variability than expected in the genes encoding the amylase.

The full paper “A chromosome conformation capture ordered sequence of the barley genome” has been published in the journal Nature.

Ant Close Up.

Farmer ants unknowingly domesticated their fungi crops by sequestering them in dry environments

Farmer ants have mastered agriculture long before humans — in fact, some species have been practicing almost industrial-scale agriculture on domesticated crops for millions of years now. Scientists at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History are now trying to determine exactly when and where that started.

Ant Close Up.

Ants are pretty cool. They also have the distinction of being the planet’s oldest farmers, seeing as they have a few millions of years ahead of us on the whole thing. Safely ensconced in underground shelters, these insects have been working and munching on various types of fungi the whole time. But some time in their agricultural development path, one group of ants got even better at farming by completely domesticating their crops.

This allowed them to tailor the crop to their needs, achieving a level of complexity that rivals our agricultural practices today. We know this group as higher agriculture ants, while their counterparts that toil away on wild or half-wild crops are called lower agriculture ants. To find out when and why the transition from lower to higher agriculture took place, researchers from the Smithsonian National Museum have traced the genetic heritage of farming and non-farming ants from wet and dry habitats throughout the Neotropics.

The high agriculture ant

Ants and the fungi they grow share an almost symbiotic relationship. When a queen’s daughter leaves the nest to establish a colony, for example, she takes a piece of fungi to start the new crop. For lower agriculture ants, however, this bond isn’t quite as tight. Such species live primarily in wet rainforests, where the fungi can escape the colony and settle in the wild. If the crops falter, the ants will sometimes go fetch fungi back to the colony — so it’s not all bad that both species are less dependent upon the other.

But this more casual fling means the fungi used for the crops is at best a mix of cultivated and wild heritage, limiting the ants’ ability to domesticate it.


And as we’ve found out throughout time, you absolutely, definitely, hands-down want to domesticate your crops. It makes food look better, taste better, more nutritious, and most importantly, more plentiful. One side effect of domestication, however, is that the crops lose most of their ability to survive without farmers, since they’re so well adapted to being tasty, guarded, and tended to, that they’re bad at everything else.

That’s also the case with higher agriculture ants. Their crops are completely dependent on the ant farmers and have never been found living without them. Higher agricultural ants’ food grows faster and is more nutritious, so they can live in bigger communities and pool all resources towards growing the fungus, removing pathogens, hauling waste, and keeping environmental conditions just right for the crops.

“These higher agricultural-ant societies have been practicing sustainable, industrial-scale agriculture for millions of years,” said Schultz. “Studying their dynamics and how their relationships with their fungal partners have evolved may offer important lessons to inform our own challenges with our agricultural practices.”

“Ants have established a form of agriculture that provides all the nourishment needed for their societies using a single crop that is resistant to disease, pests and droughts at a scale and level of efficiency that rivals human agriculture.”

Today, however, many species of agricultural ants are threatened by habitat loss. Schultz has been collecting specimens from various species to preserve in the museum’s cryogenic biorepository for future genomic studies in case these ants go extinct. For this study, he and his colleagues have compared the genes of 119 modern ant species, most of which were collected over decades of Schultz’s work in the field. The DNA sequences were compared at over 1,500 genome sites of 78 fungus-farmer and 41 non-fungus-farming ant species.

Divide and domesticate

Ted Schultz and co-author Jeffrey Sosa-Calvo excavate a lower fungus-farming ant nest in the seasonally dry Brazilian Cerrado, 2009.
Image credits Cauê Lopes and Ted Schultz / Smithsonian.

They identified the closest living non-farming relative of today’s fungus-farming ants based on their analysis, then looked at the geographic range of these species to try and deduce under what conditions higher agriculture emerged. In other words, when the crops became dependent on the ants for survival. According to the evolutionary tree they constructed based on the genetic analysis, the team believes ants first transitioned to higher agriculture in a dry or seasonally dry climate, somewhere around 30 million years ago.

Mean temperatures on Earth were dropping at the time, so dry areas were becoming more prevalent. As more and more ants lost their initial habitat and moved to these areas, they brought their crops along. But the fungi evolved to live in forests and couldn’t do the old leave-the-nest trick without dying here. In fact, they couldn’t do the old don’t-die trick at all without the ants in the new environment.


“But if your ant farmer evolves to be better at living in a dry habitat, and it brings you along and it sees to all your needs, then you’re going to be doing okay,” Schultz explains.

“If things are getting a little too dry, the ants go out and get water and they add it. If they’re too wet, they do the opposite.”

So the fungi became completely dependent on the ants since they couldn’t escape and return to the wild. Being carried over into a hostile habitat, the fungi’s survival depended on the survival of the colony and it found itself “bound in a relationship with those ants” what wasn’t there in wet forests, Shultz adds.


The shift shows how a species can become domesticated even without its farmers consciously selecting for certain traits, as human farmers would do. By moving into the drier habitats, the ants isolated their crops and decoupled their evolution from its relatives — making it take on new traits that it wouldn’t need in the wild.

The full paper “Dry habitats were crucibles of domestication in the evolution of agriculture in ants” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

Mixed legume and cereal crops don’t need fertilizer to yield a lot of food

Planting legumes alongside cereals could improve crop yields and reduce the environmental impact of farms, researchers have found.

Image credits Hans Braxmeier / Pixabay.

Following the Green Revolution and the wide-scale implementation of intensive farming, nitrogen fertilizers became vital for the way we grow crops. It has become essential to maintain high crop yields, with cereal crops usually getting around 110 kg of nitrogen fertilizer per hectare. But this nitrogen is usually derived from fossil fuels and it has a huge carbon footprint. The work of Dr Pietro Iannetta of the James Hutton Institute on intercropping could drastically reduce or remove our need for such fertilizers altogether. The findings were presented at the British Ecological Society’s annual meeting in Liverpool last week.

Intercropping is the practice of growing two or more types of crops on the same soil at the same time, as opposed to the intensive farming practice of planting a singe crop per field at a time.Dr Iannetta’s work shows that adopting this method of farming could cut greenhouse gas emissions by reducing the need for fertilizers, while boosting biodiversity, food security, and widening markets for local food and drinks at the same time.

A peas of cake

Dr Iannetta grew trial crops of peas and barley together at a 50-50% rate and found that despite using not nitrogen fertilizer, he could produce a total yield in excess of what barley alone would produce. This happens because peas and other legumes fix their own nitrogen — when grown with other crops such as barley, the peas supply the cereal’s nitrogen requirement.

Related story: Make your own compost.

Not only cheaper and more efficient, but this approach is also cleaner. Dr Iannetta estimates that emissions could be reduced by 420,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent if the UK planted its spring barley alongside legumes and used no fertilizer. That’s the equivalent CO2 that over 420,000 trees process in a year. And, since agriculture makes up around 15% of global greenhouse emissions, this approach could make a huge difference.

Western agriculture currently relies on a narrow range of crops — it’s wheat, barley, and potato heavy. By growing more legumes alongside these staples, intercropping would boost diversity and help make farming more resilient to environmental factors, crop diseases, and pests. It would also help diversify farmers’ produce, and the wider range of locally-available crops would stimulate new markets for sustainable foodstuffs. To this end, Dr Iannetta is also working on developing new ways to brew peas and beans into alcohol. With the help of Professor Graeme Walker of Abertay University working on the enzymes involved in fermentation, Barney’s Beer in Edinburgh, and Arbikie Distillery in Arbroath, he’s working on developing a beer made from 40% whole faba beans.

“Beans are notoriously difficult to ferment, but we have discovered a way of doing this by neutralising the fermentation inhibitors,” he explains.

“Tundra [the beer] is a wonderful, heavily hopped American IPA. By turning pulse starch into fermentable sugars and alcohol from 40% beans intercropped with 60% barley — we have produced a beer using 40% less artificial fertiliser.”

Such research is particularity relevant in countries with little arable soil, those who can’t afford fertilizers, or countries with a heavy tradition in brewing. Scotland, for example, uses 60% of all non-grazing arable land to grow barley, around half of which is for malting and distilling.

“Minimising the amount of artificial nitrogen used to grow barley would save carbon, save money and deliver Scottish whisky — the UK’s greatest export and tax revenue resource — in a more sustainable way.”

“The public wants healthier food that is grown more sustainably. It’s great that shops are now selling grain legume-based crisps and bread, but I wish they used more home-grown legumes. There is a huge opportunity for small growers to diversify and shorten their supply chains by developing their own high-quality legume-based products.”

The by-product of the fermentation is also high in proteins, which can be used as feed in fisheries. Dr Iannetta hopes to have commercially available green beers and neutral spirits by the end of 2017.

“These will have been produced using no human-made fertilisers, and give co-products that provide sustainable and profitable protein production for the food chain,” he concludes.

Globalization offers us a huge choice of foodstuffs — but we’re not having it

Globalization hasn’t changed our dietary habits as much as it has other areas of our lives, a new paper published Wednesday.

Image credits NeilsPhotography / Flickr.

Visit a well-stocked grocery’s produce aisle and you’ll see a generous selection of imported fruits and veggies to go with traditional domestic items. Given the huge range of available choices, you’d expect that people living in temperate areas would have expanded their diets, including these varieties readily — after all, we all love food.

A new study published yesterday found that globalization has a much smaller impact on what types of food we grow and eat. The biggest factor influencing what a person eats is still his or her birthplace, they found.

“The diversity of the food we eat hasn’t changed as much as we expected it would with globalization,” said study co-author Jeannine Cavender-Bares, associate professor in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, who led the working group together with Regents Professor Stephen Polasky at the University of Minnesota. Both are fellows at the Institute on Environment.

“We still tend to tend to eat based on the biodiversity around us even though we could eat anything.”

Although we have access to an unprecedented variety of produce, each country’s production and consumption patterns “are still largely determined by local evolutionary legacies of plant diversification.” As the tropics have a much larger pool of genetically-distinct plants naturally available, countries in those areas produce and consume a greater diversity of produce than temperate countries.

“In contrast, the richer and more economically advanced temperate countries have the capacity to produce and consume more plant species than the generally poorer tropical countries, yet this collection of plant species is drawn from fewer branches on the tree of life,” the authors note.

The game (theory) is afoot

The results were a surprise even for lead author Erik Nelson, an applied economist at Bowdoin College and former University of Minnesota graduate student advised by Stephen Polasky. According to game theory concept of comparative advantage, if each country would focus on crops they could most efficiently produce then trade with each other for the stuff they can’t grow cheaply, everyone would eat more in terms of quantity and diversity.

When considering the manufacturing or services sectors, globalization has pushed countries to focus on what they can produce or offer best, then trade for the rest of what they need. As countries become richer, this particular industry or industries develop rapidly, outclassing the others. So Nelson expected to see each country becoming increasingly more specialized in what it produces and more diverse in what it consumes, aligning to global trade practices. But he found that when it comes to the food we eat, the economy hasn’t followed suit.

“We have not seen a lot of increased specialization in agriculture around the world like we have in other economic sectors areas such as manufacturing, finance and technology,” said Nelson.

Consumption patterns have adapted to increased trade and wealth, but diversity hasn’t — for example, people who traditionally eat apples consume more varieties of the fruit thanks to trade, but don’t eat papaya regularly even though they have access to it.

Nelson cites the persistence of domestic agricultural subsidies that play a huge role when farmers decide what to plant, traditional culinary habits that rely heavily on locally available foodstuffs, and the fact that growing a wider range of crops shields households in developing countries from food price shocks. The paper warns that while a wider range of crops makes farms more resilient to pests, shifting climate, and social perturbations, it also lowers global production efficiency — which means more resources used and a greater environmental strain by our farms.

“We need to become more efficient in agriculture to meet demand,” said Nelson, “but food may be different than other commodities as it turns out, so we should think about the implications and whether it a good or bad thing in terms of food security.”

“The more a team is interdisciplinary, the greater the chance to bring new insight on old theories,” said Matt Helmus, assistant professor of biology at Temple University who co-led the study. “What excited me about working with the applied economists on our team was that they introduced me to these long-standing economic theories, that together with my knowledge on biodiversity statistics, we were able to finally test.”

The full paper “Commercial Plant Production and Consumption Still Follow the Latitudinal Gradient in Species Diversity despite Economic Globalization” has been published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Orphan gene boosts the protein levels of crops

A recent study from Iowa State University shows how a gene, found in a single plant species so far, can increase protein content when grafted into the DNA of staple crops. Their findings could help improve a huge variety of crops and improve nutrition in developing parts of the world, where available sources of protein are sometimes limited.

“We’ve found that introducing this gene to plants such as corn, rice and soybean increases protein without affecting yields,” said Ling Li, an adjunct assistant professor of genetics, development and cell biology.

Eve Syrkin Wurtele, left, and Ling Li, right, have spent years studying the potential of a gene found only in a single plant species that governs protein content.
Image via phys

Dr. Ling Li has a long work history with professor of genetics, development and cell biology Eve Syrkin Wurtele on the gene QQS they discovered in 2004 in a small flowering plant named Arabidopsis. Their discovery has already had spectacular results — several publications in peer-reviewed academic journals, a U.S. patent and multiple pending ones can all trace their roots to QQS.

Now, the duo has discovered another use for the “orphan gene” (called so because it’s not present in the genetic code of any other known organism) QQS that could help feed millions if not billions.

Li and Wurtele found that the QQS gene regulates the unusually high protein content in Arabidopsis’ seeds and leaves, and wondered if they could increase the level of protein in other plants if they transfer the gene over to their DNA.

It seems they can.

In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the team shows that the orphan gene works much the same way in rice, corn and soybeans. That’s good news for parts of the world where protein-rich foods are scarce, Li said.

“Most of the world relies on plants as a major protein resource,” Li said. “And protein that comes from animal sources requires more water, energy and resources to produce, so a diet that relies more on protein-heavy plants is more sustainable.”

But getting these transgenic crops on the global market will require years of research, safety testing and that means millions of dollars in expenses. This is why the team is also investigating non-transgenic methods of producing similar results, Wurtele said.

And their best bet right now seems to be the protein that the orphan gene binds to, known as NF-YC4 (scientists are terrible at naming things.)

This protein is present in all plants and animals, so it doesn’t require any genetic meddling to alter, Li said. If staple crops can be made to overexpress, meaning to produce more of, the NY gene , they can easily increase the levels of protein in these plants without using transgenes, saving time and costs in the regulatory process, she concluded.

Work on the QQS shows just how valuable orphan genes can be, and though research into this field is limited right now, Wurtele expects that the success they enjoyed will cause more scientists to “adopt” orphan genes in the future — and see what they’re capable of.

“This is one orphan gene that we’ve shown has big potential,” Wurtele said. “And we believe there will be many more discoveries related to other orphan genes in the future.”

Feeding the world through global warming: Altering one plant gene makes for climate-resilient crops

It’s estimated that humanity will have to produce around 50% more food than we currently do to keep up with growing global demand….by 2050. It’s an enormous challenge, especially as more and more countries face the effects of climate change, such as drought or toxic groundwater salinity levels. One of our best hopes is to rely more on crops that can flourish despite the vicissitudes of the environment, and plant cell biologists at the University of Oxford hope that their new breakthrough in climate-resilient agriculture will allow us to do just that.

Corn plants damaged by extreme heat and drought conditions stand in a field in Carmi, IL. Image credit: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Though not a new field of research, Oxford’s study offers a new angle on the problem by looking at plant genetics for a way to make our crops sturdier in the face of wilder weather and more harsher climate. The team has discovered a gene that can be used to give plants in a laboratory setting more resilience, making them thrive instead of whither when unfavourable conditions strike. Their research has been published in the print edition of Current Biology.

The gene known as SP1 is found in all plants and plays a regulatory function in photosynthesis, controling the influx of proteins to the plant cells’ chloroplasts. When a plant becomes “stressed” from say, too much salt in the groundwater, the photosynthetic machinery bogs down.

“One of the undesirable consequences of too much photosynthesis under stressed conditions is the overproduction of toxic molecules called ‘reactive oxygen species’,” says Paul Jarvis, plant cell biologist at Oxford University, and author on the new paper.

This build up of toxins in the strained plant always leads to its untimely death, and withered plants make for poor harvests. To prevent this accumulation of toxins, photosynthesis must be slowed down during times of stress, and here is where the Oxford research hits home — the team found that they could modify the SP1 gene to reduce the flow of proteins to the chloroplasts.

“We found that if you alter the activity of SP1 you can modify the extent to which photosynthesis takes place,” Jarvis explains.

Together with his co-researcher Qihua Ling, a post-doctoral research associate at the university, Jarvis tested the theory by simulating conditions of high salinity and extreme dryness and noting how three groups of plants reacted in this environment: normal wild cress, cress engineered to lack SP1, and another engineered to over-express the gene.

“What we found was that the plants with high levels of SP1 were more tolerant of several different stresses,” Jarvis explains. Those SP-loaded plants photosynthesised less, produced fewer of the associated toxins under stress, and so were more resilient to environmental flux.

There’s a chance the plants may be trading photosynthesis for survival, potentially compromising their overall productivity. But SP1 functions in ways that aren’t fully understood yet, and it’s also possible that it might only intensify its responsiveness in times of stress, according to Jarvis. He also notes that there are viable ways of reducing this potential compromise — namely, engineering plants to express SP1 only when they’re under pressure.

Jarvis and his colleagues are now applying their discovery to other plants like tomatoes, brassica, wheat, and rice — the latter two especially, because they’re staple crops for billions globally. While the research is still at a preliminary stage, in the future it could form part of a toolbox that enables us to breed tougher, more climate-ready crops — a challenge of growing pertinence, as we face the looming threat of lowered yields.

“Food security is on everybody’s minds,” says Jarvis. “We have an issue with population growth, and we’re losing in the region of 50% of yields to consequences of stress. So with that backdrop, it becomes exciting if you can identify a gene that potentially could mitigate that loss.”