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'More Cavalier' plants could counter effects of climate change

17 December 2008

A leading UK plant scientist has called for the application of new in-depth data analysis of plants’ regulatory systems to enable plant breeders to develop varieties that are naturally less conservative.

"To develop varieties of crops that can produce high yield sustainably under changing climatic conditions we need to be able to override plants’ natural tendency to batten down the hatches really hard when times are tough, and to hedge their bets when times are good," said Professor Ottoline Leyser of the University of York’s department of Biology.

Professor Leyser was speaking at a recent meeting of the Strategy Advisory Board* of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council – the major public funder of plant science research in the UK.

She told the meeting that plants are naturally conservative. Evolution has driven them to plan for the long term and adopt a cautious rate of growth in case things get really bad in the future. While this makes sense in the wild, said Professor Leyser, for crop plants we want varieties that will behave in a more ‘cavalier fashion’ and maintain a faster rate of growth in a range of environments, investing that growth specifically in plant parts of agricultural relevance.

Although 10,000 years of plant breeding has made significant inroads in modifying plant growth properties, sophisticated new information about plant genes and their functions provides exciting opportunities for plant breeders to tap into the unused potential of plants to maintain productivity, even in harsh conditions.

There is a tendency to assume that plants are growing as fast as they can given the resources available to them, but multiple lines of evidence now show that this is not the case. Plants have specific genes that limit growth, and quite simple changes in those genes can increase productivity. The trick, however, is to breed plants with more sophisticated combinations of these genes that will still respond to the environment, protecting themselves from harsh conditions, but in a more light-touch way. To do that, we need to understand how these genes work together as a system to regulate growth.

Professor Leyser said that one of the big challenges is to channel this information rapidly into large scale plant breeding.

* The Board advises BBSRC Council on its strategic priorities and planning, and brings together academic and industry based researchers.

ENDS

About BBSRC

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £420M in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors. www.bbsrc.ac.uk

About the University of York's Department of Biology

The University of York's Department of Biology is one of the leading centres for biological teaching and research in the UK. The Department both teaches degree courses and undertakes research across the whole spectrum of modern Biology, from molecular genetics and biochemistry to ecology.

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