On The Edge

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Discovery of Sorghum Gene that Controls Bird Feeding Could Help Protect Crops

A single gene in sorghum controls bird feeding behaviour by simultaneously regulating the production of bad-tasting molecules and attractive volatiles, according to a study published Sept. 23, 2019, in the journal Molecular Plant. This gene, called Tannin1, controls the synthesis of bird-deterring astringent polyphenols called tannins. The authors suggest the findings could lead to novel control strategies to protect major cereal crops worldwide.

Damage by birds causes great loss to agricultural production worldwide. With cereal crops, birds cause damage by pecking seeds and sucking the juice of immature seeds, preventing full development of many grains and frequently encouraging mildews and other plant diseases. Currently, there are few efficient control measures to protect field crops from bird damage.

Some cereal crops most vulnerable to bird damage include wheat, barley, rice, sorghum, and millet. Sorghum is a major global cereal crop that is a steady source of calories for more than 500 million people worldwide and is also an important source of biofuels. Sorghum yield losses caused by birds have been reported to reach as high as 52 per cent. Some evidence suggests that bird taste preferences depend on various properties of sorghum, but the underlying molecular or chemical basis has not been clear.

By conducting a genome-wide association study, co-senior study authors Qi Xie and Yaorong Wu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences discovered that Tannin1 regulates bird feeding behaviour. The sorghum lines avoided by birds contain the wild-type version of Tannin1, while the bird-preferred sorghum lines have a mutated version of the gene.  Source: Cell Press

Soap from Straw: Scientists Develop Eco-Friendly Ingredient from Agricultural Waste

A scientist has discovered a way of using one of the world’s most abundant natural resources as a replacement for man-made chemicals in soaps and thousands of other household products.

An innovative research project, published this month and led by the University of Portsmouth, has demonstrated that bails of rice straw could create a “biosurfactant,” providing an alternative non-toxic ingredient in the production of a vast variety of products that normally include synthetic materials, which are often petroleum based.

The biotechnology project set out to solve one of the planet’s most pressing environmental problems, looking for a way of reducing the amount of man-made chemicals in everyday life. It has been co-supervised by the University of Portsmouth’s Centre for Enzyme Innovation, working in conjunction with Amity University in India and the Indian Institute of Technology.

The study was looking for a natural replacement for chemical surfactants, a main active ingredient in the production of cleaning products, medicine, sun cream, make-up and insecticides. The surfactant holds oil and water together, helping to lower the surface tension of a liquid, aiding the cleaning power and penetration of the product. Source: University Of Portsmouth

Harnessing Tomato Jumping Genes Could Help Speed-Breed Drought-Resistant Crops

Researchers from the University of Cambridge’s Sainsbury Laboratory (SLCU) and Department of Plant Sciences have discovered that drought stress triggers the activity of a family of jumping genes (Rider retrotransposons) previously known to contribute to fruit shape and colour in tomatoes.

Transposons, more commonly called jumping genes, are mobile snippets of DNA code that can copy themselves into new positions within the genome — the genetic code of an organism. They can change, disrupt or amplify genes, or have no effect at all. Discovered in corn kernels by Nobel prize-winning scientist Barbara McClintock in the 1940s, scientists are increasingly realizing that transposons are not junk at all but actually play an important role in the evolutionary process, and in altering gene expression and the physical characteristics of plants.

Their characterization of Rider, published in PLOS Genetics,revealed that the Rider family is also present and potentially active in other plants, including economically important crops such as rapeseed, beetroot and quinoa. This highlights its potential as a source of new trait variations that could help plants better cope with more extreme conditions driven by our changing climate. This wide abundance encourages further investigations into how it can be activated in a controlled way, or reactivated or re-introduced into plants that currently have inactive Rider elements so that their trait diversification potential can be regained. Such an approach has the potential to significantly reduce breeding time compared to traditional methods. Source: University of Cambridge Sainsbury Laboratory

Study Opens Door to Flood-Resistant Crops

Of all the major food crops, rice is the only crop that can survive flooding. New research conducted by scientists at the University of California Riverside (UC Riverside) could soon change this as some of the genes involved in adaptation in rice also exist in other plants. The scientists found that a wild-growing tomato, a tomato for farming, and a plant similar to alfalfa share at least 68 gene families that are activated as a response to flooding. The UC Riverside team hopes to use the knowledge about rice in activating the genes in other plants to help them survive waterlogging.

The research team examined cells located at the roots’ tips, as roots are the first responders to flood. Root tips and shoot buds are also where the plant’s prime growing potential resides. These two regions contain cells that can help a plant become more resilient to flooding.

The genes involved in flooding adaptations are called submergence up-regulated families (SURFs). While UC Riverside researchers performed flooding experiments and analysis of rice plant genomes, their colleagues at UC Davis did the same with the tomato species while the alfalfa-type plant work was done at Emory University. They found that SURFs were activated in all the plants during flooding experiments, but their genetic responses were not as effective as in rice. The group now plans to conduct additional studies to improve survival rates of the plants that currently die and rot from excess water. Source: ISAAA