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Breakthrough in the production of flood-tolerant crops

Visit  The University of Nottingham website

24 October 2011

This week thousands of families lost their homes and crops as flood waters swept across Central America. In Thailand huge tracts of farmland were submerged as the country faced its worst flooding in 50 years. Across the globe agricultural production is at risk as catastrophic flooding becomes a world-wide problem.

  Breakthrough in the production of flood-tolerant crops

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Prolonged flooding drastically reduces yields by cutting off the supply of oxygen crops need to survive. Now experts funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) at The University of Nottingham, working in collaboration with the University of California, Riverside, have identified the molecular mechanism plants use to sense low oxygen levels. The discovery could lead, eventually, to the production of high-yielding, flood-tolerant crops, benefiting farmers, markets and consumers across the globe.

The mechanism controls key proteins in plants causing them to be unstable when oxygen levels are normal. When roots or shoots are flooded and oxygen levels drop these proteins become stable.

The research is published on Sunday 23 October in the prestigious journal Nature.

Michael Holdsworth and Dan Gibbs. Copyright: University of Nottingham

Michael Holdsworth and Dan Gibbs.
Copyright: University of Nottingham

Michael Holdsworth, Professor of Crop Science in the School of Biosciences at Nottingham said: "We have identified the mechanism through which reduced oxygen levels are sensed. The mechanism controls key regulatory proteins called transcription factors that can turn other genes on and off. It is the unusual structure of these proteins that destines them for destruction under normal oxygen levels, but when oxygen levels decline, they become stable. Their stability results in changes in gene expression and metabolism that enhance survival in the low oxygen conditions brought on by flooding. When the plants return to normal oxygen levels, the proteins are again degraded, providing a feedback control mechanism".

As Pakistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Australia, the UK and America have all fallen victim to catastrophic flooding in recent years tolerance of crops to partial or complete submergence is a key target for global food security. Starved of oxygen, crops cannot survive a flood for long periods of time, leading to drastic reductions in yields for farmers.

Professor Holdsworth's work, in collaboration with Professor Julia Bailey-Serres, a geneticist and expert in plant responses to flooding at the University of California, Riverside, is just the beginning.

The team expects that over the next decade scientists will be able to manipulate the protein turnover mechanism in a wide range of crops prone to damage by flooding.

Professor Bailey-Serres said: "At this time, we do not know for sure the level of conservation across plants of the turnover mechanism in response to flooding. We have quite a bit of assurance from our preliminary studies, however, that there is cross-species conservation. Our experiments on Arabidopsis show that manipulation of the pathway affects low oxygen stress tolerance. There is no reason why these results cannot be extrapolated to other plants and crops. Still, we have many research questions to answer on the turnover mechanism. What we plan to do next is to nail down this mechanism more clearly."

Professor Holdsworth, an international expert in seed biology had the first hint of the discovery while investigating the regulation of gene expression during seed germination. He connected the mechanism of degradation of key regulatory proteins with changes in the expression of genes associated with low oxygen stress that Bailey-Serres has studied extensively.

Professor Holdsworth said: "The puzzle pieces fell quickly into place when the expertise of the two teams was combined".

The work was carried out by Professor Holdsworth and his team in the School of Biosciences in collaboration with researchers at the University of California, Riverside in the United States, Rothamsted Research in the United Kingdom and University Pierre and Marie Curie, France.

The work was funded by the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), Malaysian government through MARA, the US Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA-NIFA), and the US National Science Foundation.

ENDS

About the University of Nottingham

The University of Nottingham, described by The Sunday Times University Guide 2011 as 'the embodiment of the modern international university', has award-winning campuses in the United Kingdom, China and Malaysia. It is ranked in the UK's Top 10 and the World's Top 75 universities by the Shanghai Jiao Tong (SJTU) and the QS World University Rankings. It was named 'Europe's greenest university' in the UI GreenMetric World University Ranking, a league table of the world's most environmentally-friendly higher education institutions, which ranked Nottingham second in the world overall.

The University is committed to providing a truly international education for its 40,000 students, producing world-leading research and benefiting the communities around its campuses in the UK and Asia.

More than 90% of research at The University of Nottingham is of international quality, according to the most recent Research Assessment Exercise, with almost 60% of all research defined as 'world-leading' or 'internationally excellent'. Research Fortnight analysis of RAE 2008 ranked the University 7th in the UK by research power.

The University's vision is to be recognised around the world for its signature contributions, especially in global food security, energy & sustainability, and health. More news from the University at: www.nottingham.ac.uk/news.

For up to the minute media alerts follow the University of Nottingham on Twitter at: www.twitter.com/UoNPressOffice.

About BBSRC

BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by Government, and with an annual budget of around £445M, we support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

For more information about BBSRC, our science and our impact see: www.bbsrc.ac.uk .
For more information about BBSRC strategically funded institutes see: www.bbsrc.ac.uk/institutes .

External contact

Professor Mike Holdsworth, School of Biosciences at The University of Nottingham

tel: 0115 9516046

Lindsay Brooke, Media Relations Manager, The University of Nottingham

tel: 0115 9515751