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How environment and genomes interact during plant development
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How environment and genomes interact during plant development

Newswise — AMES, Iowa – Iowa State University scientists have harnessed data analytics to look “under the hood” of the mechanisms that determine how genetics and changing environmental conditions interact during crucial developmental stages of plants.

The researchers published a new study in the scientific journal New Phytologist that examines how temperature changes affect the height of sorghum plants. They also said the research could help breed more resilient crops and shed light on the mechanisms that are crucial for plant growth. The research centers around the concept phenotypic flexibility, or how a trait can be affected by environmental conditions. A plant might grow higher in a dry environment than one with identical genetics in a wet environment.

Jianming Yu is a professor of Agronomy at Iowa State University. He was also the Pioneer Distinguished chair in Maize Breeding at Iowa State University. This study was co-authored by Jianming Yu. However, only looking at the mature traits of plants is not enough to understand plasticity. The new study examines the growth rates of sorghum at a crucial stage in its development, between 40-53 days after planting. Zeroing in on that rapid-growth phase in the plant’s life cycle allowed the researchers to examine the mechanisms that govern sorghum’s phenotypic plasticity in greater detail.

“Looking at the developmental phase allows us to look under the hood to see what causes the final mature traits,” Yu said.

The researchers collected data over multiple years on sorghum, a worldwide cultivated cereal crop. The researchers collected measurements of plant height at various points during the growing seasons. This data was used to create a large dataset that they then applied statistical regression analyses to better understand how height and diurnal temperatures change (the difference in temperature between daytime lows and nighttime highs).

They discovered that increases in diurnal temperatures change were associated with shorter plants. This was particularly evident in the critical developmental period around 40 to 53 day after planting.

“We found that these genes actually interact with environmental stimuli and control the maximum growth rate as well as time to reach maximum growth rate,” said Qi Mu, a postdoctoral research associate in agronomy and the first author of the study. “And that eventually determines the final plant height.”

Plasticity and climate change

Yu said that climate change is making it more important to understand phenotypic variability. Farmers and plant breeders will need better tools to predict how crops will perform under different environmental conditions as climate change causes more volatile weather swings. Yu said that climate change could lead to nighttime temperatures rising in some areas, which could have serious implications for cultivating crops.

Mu stated that research into phenotypic flexibility will allow plant breeders more precise tools to predict how crops will perform in a variety of environmental conditions.

“With climate change, crops need to adapt to different climates and environments,” Mu said. “In order to breed crops that are more adaptive we have to understand the mechanism of how they respond to environments. With that knowledge, we can design resilient crops that thrive in future environments.”

The study’s results emerged after analyzing 3,500 phenotype records collected in four years, and further validated with 13,500 phenotype records in another four years, said Xianran Li, a former adjunct associate professor of agronomy at Iowa State and a co-corresponding author of the study.

“Thousands of weather and genetic fingerprint datapoints were mulled over as well,” said Li, now a research scientist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service.

The USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, ISU Raymond F. Baker Center for Plant Breeding and ISU Plant Sciences Institute funded the research. The research team also included Tingting Guo, a research scientist in agronomy and a member of Yu’s lab.

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