In the genes: overlooked tomatoes’ drought resistance


A once overlooked gene, from a family of “jumping genes”, has been found to hold the potential to accelerate crop breeding through improved drought resistance in tomatoes.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge’s Sainsbury Laboratory (SLCU) and Department of Plant Sciences have highlighted, in the journal PLOS Genetics, that drought stress activates the jumping genes, also known as Rider retrotransposons, once believed to contribute to the shape and colour of tomatoes.

The Rider family of genes is also present in crops like rapeseed, beetroot and quinoa. This research could result in further genetic modification in order to help crops cope with more extreme weather conditions.

“Transposons carry potential for crop improvement. They are powerful drivers of trait diversity, and while we have been harnessing these traits to improve our crops for generations, we are now starting to understand the molecular mechanisms involved,” said Dr Matthias Benoit, the paper’s first author, formerly at SLCU.

“In a large population size, such as a tomato field, in which transposons are activated in each individual we would expect to see diverse new traits. By controlling this ‘random mutation’ process within the plant we can accelerate this process to generate new phenotypes that we could not even imagine,” said Dr Hajk Drost at SLCU, a co-author of the paper.

“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 Benoit. “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.”

Due to the continued destruction of our environment, we are currently suffering from climate change causing drought and extreme weather conditions. However, these climate changes are only going to worsen if we continue to abuse our planet. Although these measures will help protect our food from drought now, there is no telling how efficient these measures will be in the next 20 years.

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