Discovery of a ‘genetic gold mine’ that could help crops survive in hotter, drier climates

Scientists have discovered a ‘genetic gold mine’ that they say can be used to help crops survive in hotter and drier climates caused by Global Warming.

Experts from New York University have discovered plants growing in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile, one of the driest places on Earth.

These plants have evolved genes that enable them to thrive in the most Martian-like regions on Earth and are closely related to staple foods like grains and potatoes.

It opens the door to tougher fruit and vegetable architecture, according to Professor Gloria Corozzi, lead author, who has cataloged more than 200 flowering species.

“In an era of accelerating climate change, it is essential to reveal the genetic basis for improved crop production and resilience under dry and nutrient-poor conditions,” said Professor Coruzzi.

The Chilean research team has created an unparalleled “natural laboratory” in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile, one of the driest and harshest environments on Earth.

Key findings: Desert flowers hold key to climate change

Researchers have analyzed the DNA of plants that thrive in the Atacama Desert – the driest on Earth.

They wanted to find specific genes associated with “survival” in the harsh environment of the coastal desert.

They identified 265 candidate genes whose protein sequence changes were selected for by evolutionary forces.

These produce mutations that can underlie the plant’s adaptation to desert conditions.

  • They include genes involved in the response to light and photosynthesis, which may enable plants to adapt to intense radiation.
  • Likewise, they found genes involved in regulating the response to stress, salt, and detoxification and minerals.
  • It may be related to tolerance of a nutrient poor environment.

Between the Pacific coast and the Andes Mountains, the coastal desert is a barren plateau, but, in the spring, the corner is covered with a carpet of flowers.

Both the purple pata de guanaco and the yellow ananuca are among the more than 200 species of plants that thrive in the area, thriving in an inhospitable environment with an average rainfall of only 0.01 cm per year.

Other varieties include herbs, annuals and perennials, the team said.

Mesquite trees, buckwheat shrub, ferns and black sage have deep roots and fleshy leaves that retain moisture, and now an international team has come to grips with a phenomenon that has baffled scientists for decades.

They have created an unparalleled “natural laboratory” that has identified specific genes and microbes that power the most powerful plants on the planet.

It is hoped that the findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, will help feed the world in the coming decades as the planet warms.

Co-lead author Professor Rodrigo Gutierrez, from the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, said the study of desert plants is directly relevant to regions around the world that are becoming increasingly arid due to climate change.

“With factors such as drought, temperature extremes and salinity in water and soil posing a major threat to global food production,” he said.

Plants must also adapt to higher altitudes, less availability of nutrients in the soil, and very high radiation from sunlight.

Over a ten-year period, the researchers collected, labeled and frozen the 32 most dominant plants taken from 22 locations across the desert in different plant regions and all 320 feet of elevation.

The samples were kept in liquid nitrogen and sent 1,000 miles under dry ice to Professor Gutierrez’s laboratory in Santiago where the staff mapped their DNA.

Some grew where temperatures fluctuated more than 50 degrees from day to night – or there was very high radiation.

Others were found in soils that were largely sandy and lacking in nutrients – with the only annual rainfall over a few days.

The analysis showed that some species have developed growth-promoting bacteria near their roots, an adaptive strategy that improves nitrogen uptake — important for growth — in nutrient-poor Atacama soils.

Gabriela Carrasco worked to identify, label, collect and freeze plant specimens in the Atacama Desert.  These samples were then traveled 1,000 miles and kept under dry ice to be processed for RNA extraction

Gabriela Carrasco worked to identify, label, collect and freeze plant specimens in the Atacama Desert. These samples were then traveled 1,000 miles and kept under dry ice to be processed for RNA extraction

Is there any life on Mars? Dozens of microbial species have been discovered 11 inches below the surface of Earth’s most arid desert, which may indicate the presence of organisms hiding on Mars.

The arid Chilean desert is said to be the closest thing to Mars we have on Earth, and a new discovery in the infernal landscape could help scientists find life on the Red Planet.

A team from Cornell University has discovered a diverse assortment of microbes lurking in wet mud just 11 inches below the surface of the Atacama Desert, suggesting that biosignatures may exist in similar muddy deposits on Mars.

Gale crater on Mars is filled with similar rocks rich in clay and probably habitable for microorganisms similar to those found in the subterranean soil of the Earth’s desert.

Research indicates that if NASARover 2020 spotted the same fractures around Gale Crater, the area should be high priority targets for the sample in order to find life.

The study reinforces the idea that early Mars could have had a similar surface, especially during its first billion years of history.

Genes whose protein sequences were adapted were then identified by comparing plants with 32 similar “naughty” species from elsewhere in the world.

This was done through a technique called genetics that reconstructs an organism’s family tree.

“The goal was to use this evolutionary tree based on genome sequences to identify changes in the amino acid sequences encoded in genes that support the evolution of the Atacama plant’s adaptation to desert conditions,” said Professor Korozi.

Some streams in the Atacama dried up about 120,000 years ago, and temperature changes can be extreme, with daytime temperatures dropping as low as 77 degrees Fahrenheit, and as low as 28 degrees Fahrenheit at night.

NASA investigated this for evidence of possible life beneath the surface of Mars.

Co-author Dr Jill Eshel, from New York University, said: “This computationally intensive genomic analysis included the comparison of 1,686,950 protein sequences across more than 70 species.

“We used the resulting 8,599,764 amino acid supermatrix to reconstruct the phylogenetic reconstruction of the evolutionary history of the Atacama species.”

The study identified 265 candidate genes whose protein sequence changes were selected for by evolutionary forces, producing mutations that could underlie plant adaptation to desert conditions.

They include genes involved in the response to light and photosynthesis, which may enable plants to adapt to intense radiation.

Similarly, researchers have uncovered genes involved in regulating the response to stress, salt, and detoxification and minerals.

It may be related to tolerance of a nutrient poor environment.

Most studies of plant tolerance have been based on laboratory experiments using a few model species—missing the ecological context.

Experts from New York University have discovered plants growing in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile, one of the driest places on Earth.

Experts from New York University have discovered plants growing in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile, one of the driest places on Earth.

“By studying the ecosystem in its natural environment, we were able to identify adaptive genes and molecular processes between species that experience a common harsh environment,” said co-author Dr Viviana Araus, a member of Professor Gutierrez’s laboratory.

The amazing flowers of the Atacama are known locally as the “Blooming Desert”.

Professor Gutierrez said: ‘Most of the plant species that we have featured in this research have not been studied before.

Since some Atacama plants are closely related to staple crops, including cereals, legumes and potatoes, the candidate genes we have identified represent a genetic goldmine for engineering more resilient crops, a necessity given the increasing desertification of our planet.

The results were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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