Gene-editing hope for ‘pod shatter’ crops

A harmful effect of climate change that poses a major threat to food crops around the world could be overcome by gene editing, say scientists.

Higher temperatures have been shown to cause the seed pods of cruciferous plants such as cabbage, broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts and oilseed rape to open and release their precious cargo prematurely.

Known as “pod shatter”,  the phenomenon is one of the major causes of cruciferous crop failure.

Researchers at the John Innes Centre in Norwich pinpointed a genetic heat trigger that plays a key role in pod shatter.

The discovery could pave the way to plant breeding or genetic engineering strategies aimed at producing cruciferous plants that can withstand the effects of global warming, say the scientists.

One solution would be to use precise gene-editing tools such as Crispr/Cas9 to suppress a key temperature-sensitive gene.

Dr Vinod Kumar, who co-led the John Innes Centre team, said: “It’s almost as if there is a thermostat that controls seed dispersal, or pod shatter. As we learn how it works, we could in the future ‘rewire’ it so seed dispersal does not happen at the same pace at higher temperatures.

“This piece of the puzzle, coupled with the use of advanced genetic tools means that developing temperature-resilient crops becomes an achievable dream.”

On average, farmers of oil seed rape lose between 15% and 20% of their crop yield each year due to premature seed dispersal.

To study the effects of temperature on seed pods, the scientists monitored the development of Arabidopsis, a laboratory plant related to important cruciferous crops.

They found that increasing ambient temperature from 22C to 27C caused a stiffening of plant cell walls and accelerated pod shatter.

The team went on to show how the gene that controls pod shatter, called indehiscent, is activated by a heat switch mechanism.

The findings are reported in the journal Molecular Plant.

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