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WA Research Could Help Crops Endure Climate Change

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Researchers at Washington State University are studying a protein that could make plants more tolerant to drought. (Scott/Adobe Stock)
Researchers at Washington State University are studying a protein that could make plants more tolerant to drought. (Scott/Adobe Stock)
May 29, 2020

SPOKANE, Wash. - Researchers at Washington State University may have found a way to help crops adapt to a warming climate.

Phytologist Karen Sanguinet - an assistant professor in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences at WSU - is studying a protein that she says could help plants move water more efficiently within their own system of veins in harsh climates.

As droughts become more prevalent under climate change, she says a plant's ability to make the most of available water resources will be crucial.

"One of the biggest issues facing society today is understanding how climate change is going to affect our food supply," says Sanguinet.

Sanguinet and her colleague have found promising results with the protein known as 'MAP-20.' Their studies have found the protein is crucial to the structure in plants that enables water movement.

Sanguinet says in dry times, air bubbles can get into the vessels of a plant that transport water, causing pockets that can block water, like a traffic jam. These air pockets can spread to other vessels through tiny structures known as pits.

She explains that expression of the MAP-20 gene leads to smaller pits, resulting in fewer air pockets.

"If you can manipulate the size and thickness of this pit membrane," says Sanguinet, "you can alter water movement and have better water transport and plants better able to tolerate periods of drought."

WSU biologist and Associate Professor in the Institute of Biological Chemistry, Andrei Smertenko is Sanguinet's colleague in this research. He says scientists need to do even more research to prepare for a warming planet because right now, humans' toolbox for adapting to new, hotter conditions is limited.

"We need to engineer a set of tools that would be applicable to improving performance of plants under different environments," says Smertenko.

Next, the WSU researchers want to focus on how the MAP-20 gene affects other species of plants beyond the grasses they have been studying. They envision their research as potentially being useful for the future of agriculture.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - WA