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18 September, 2019 - 20:02 By Kate Sweeney

Cambridge breakthrough in breeding drought-resistant crops

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration

Cambridge researchers have discovered that harnessing ‘jumping genes’ found in tomatoes could accelerate the breeding of drought-resistant crops. 

Boosting crop resilience is crucial in a time of global warming and would help plants cope with the extreme effects of a changing climate.  

Researchers from the University of Cambridge’s Sainsbury Laboratory (SLCU) and Department of Plant Sciences found that drought stress triggers the activity of a group of jumping genes – called Rider retrotransposons – previously known to contribute to the colour and shape of tomatoes. 

The Rider ‘family’ has been identified in abundant and economically viable plants including rapeseed, quinoa and beetroot. 

The finding highlights the potential for Rider to be used to optimise plant robustness. If Rider can be activated in a controlled way – or reintroduced in plants which have inactive elements to help them regain trait potential – it could also contribute to the speed-breeding of resilient crops. 

“Identifying that Rider activity is triggered by drought suggests that it can create new gene regulatory networks that would help a plant respond to drought,” said the research paper’s lead author, Dr Matthias Benoit, formerly at SLCU. 

“This means we could harness Rider to breed crops that are better adapted to drought stress by providing drought responsiveness to genes already present in crops. This is particularly significant in times of global warming, where there is an urgent need to breed more resilient crops.”

‘Jumping genes’ (formal term: ‘transposons’) were discovered in corn kernels by Nobel prize-winning scientist Barbara McClintock in the 1940s. Previously dismissed as ‘junk DNA’, transposons are now known to alter gene expression as well as a plant’s physical characteristics. 

Transposons play an important role in evolutionary processes. These mobile pieces of DNA code can copy themselves into new positions within the genome to amplify, alter or disrupt genes, or cause no change. 

Using transposons within the plant to form new mutations – both traits and resistances – advances traditional techniques in plant breeding and offers a ‘transgene-free’ breeding method that observes EU legislation on Genetically Modified Organisms.

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