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.
A new study was published in an academic scientific journal New PhytologistThe research examines how temperature changes affect the height of sorghum plant. Scientists who carried out the experiments believe that the research could lead to more resilient crops and shed light on the mechanisms that are crucial for plant growth. The research centers around the concept phenotypic polyity, 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, a professor in the department of Plant Breeding, stated that understanding plasticity can help plant breeders create crop varieties that will thrive under a variety of environmental conditions. AgronomyThe Pioneer Distinguished Chair in Maize Breeding, Iowa State University, is the corresponding author of this study. However, only looking at the mature traits of plants is not enough to understand plasticity. The new study instead examines sorghum’s growth rate during a critical phase of 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.
Researchers collected data on sorghum over a number of years. It is a globally 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 especially true during 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 changes
Yu stated that climate change is making it more important to understand phenotypic variability. Climate change will cause more extreme weather swings, which will make it more difficult for farmers and plant breeders to predict how different crop varieties will perform in different environments. Yu, for example, said that climate change could cause nighttime temperatures in certain locations to rise, which could have significant implications for cultivating crops.
Mu said that research on phenotypic and phenotypic plasticity will enable plant breeders to create more precise tools for predicting how crops will perform under a variety 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.