Plants can adapt genetically to survive harsh environments

Jan 31, 2011

A Purdue University scientist has found genetic evidence of how some plants adapt to live in unfavorable conditions, a finding he believes could one day be used to help food crops survive in new or changing environments.

David Salt, a professor of horticulture, noticed several years ago that a variant of the research plant Arabidopsis thaliana that could tolerate higher levels of had come from coastal areas. To test the observation, Salt grew more than 300 Arabidopsis thaliana from seeds gathered across Europe. The plants were grown in non-saline soil and their leaf-sodium content was measured.

Each plant's origination was mapped, and those with the highest sodium contents were found to have come from seeds collected close to a coast or area with high saline soil. All plants were analyzed using genome-wide association mapping, which compares the genomes of a number of plants with a shared physical trait - in this case leaf sodium accumulation - to identify genes that may account for variation in this characteristic. Salt found that the plants that accumulate the highest sodium levels in their leaves had a weak form of the gene HTK1, which regulates sodium intake distribution to leaves.

"The major gene that is controlling variation in leaf sodium accumulation across the whole European population of Arabidopsis thaliana is HTK1," said Salt, whose findings were published in the journal . "The Arabidopsis thaliana plants that accumulated high levels of sodium had a reduced level of HTK1 gene expression. The populations that have this altered form of HTK1 are on the coast. There are a few exceptions that prove the rule, such as populations in the Czech Republic, which isn't near the coast, but come from an area containing high saline soils derived from an ancient beach."

It has long been known that plants are adapted to their local soil environments, but the molecular basis of such adaptation has remained elusive. Salt said this is some of the first evidence linking genetic changes with adaptation to specific environmental factors.

"What we're looking at is evolution in action," Salt said. "It looks like natural selection is matching expression of this gene to the local soil conditions."

Salt said crops grown around the world could be affected, possibly negatively, by climate change. It may become important to identify mechanisms to adapt plants to drought conditions, higher temperatures or changes in soil nutrition. Salt believes identifying genetic mechanisms of how plants naturally adapt to their environments will be key to solving those problems.

"Driven by natural selection, plants have been evolving to grow under harsh conditions for millennia," Salt said. "We need to understand genetically what is allowing these plants to survive these conditions."

Explore further: Brother of Hibiscus is found alive and well on Maui

Related Stories

Sowing seed on salty ground

Jun 06, 2007

Scientists have discovered a gene that allows plants to grow better in low nutrient conditions and even enhance their growth through sodium uptake, according to a report published online this week in The EMBO Journal.

Salt-tolerant gene found in simple plant nothing to sneeze at

Apr 07, 2008

Whether a plant withers unproductively or thrives in salty conditions may now be better understood by biologists. The cellular mechanism that controls salt tolerance has been found in the arabidopsis plant by a Texas AgriLife ...

Researchers develop highest yielding salt tolerant wheat

Apr 15, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- In a major breakthrough for wheat farmers in salt-affected areas, CSIRO researchers have developed a salt tolerant durum wheat that yields 25 per cent more grain than the parent variety in ...

Opening a channel for salt retention

Apr 25, 2008

A research team has developed the first small molecule that can reversibly activate a key protein involved in balancing sodium levels, paving the way for drugs that can treat low blood pressure and related conditions.

Recommended for you

Brother of Hibiscus is found alive and well on Maui

1 hour ago

Most people are familiar with Hibiscus flowers- they are an iconic symbol of tropical resorts worldwide where they are commonly planted in the landscape. Some, like Hawaii's State Flower- Hibiscus brackenridgei- are en ...

Why do snakes flick their tongues?

3 hours ago

Many people think a snake's forked tongue is creepy. Every so often, the snake waves it around rapidly, then retracts it. Theories explaining the forked tongues of snakes have been around for thousands of ...

Boat noise impacts development and survival of sea hares

3 hours ago

While previous studies have shown that marine noise can affect animal movement and communication, with unknown ecological consequences, scientists from the Universities of Bristol and Exeter and the École Pratique des Hautes ...

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

breadhead
1 / 5 (2) Feb 04, 2011
No evolution in action, just a variation of the plant that is able to tolerate the environment. So, are there plants "Evolving" to tolerate the Gulf oil leak? Just more evolution nonsense.
Ethelred
5 / 5 (1) Feb 05, 2011
No evolution in action, just a variation of the plant that is able to tolerate the environment.

A variation that has a mutation that is selected for in some areas and not selected for in others. That is evolution by natural selection. A minor example.

Ethelred