Ice plant could save bioenergy crops from global warming

The ice plant could play a key role in helping bioenergy feedstocks cope with the salinity and drought of a warming climate, according to a press release from the University of Nevada, Reno.

Biochemist and molecular biologist John Cushman from the University of Nevada will analyse the biological mechanisms allowing ice plants to survive seasonally arid climates and those with intermittent water supplies. In particular, Cushman’s team will look at the genomics of crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM), a water conserving photosynthetic pathway that helps plants survive in dry conditions.

"The goal of the plant flagship genome program is basically to create gene atlases for a series of target crops that are important to the DOE (Department of Energy) mission as bioenergy feedstocks," Cushman said in the press release. "But these selected species also include model plants that grow rapidly and are easy to study to improve our understanding of gene function."

Cushman and his team hope to understand how the ice plant’s circadian rhythms combined with environmental stresses regulate the expression of CAM.

"It's simple really," Cushman said. "We release carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and average temperatures around the world increase. More heat leads to greater soil drying and more water loss from plants so that they can stay cool, both of which lead to greater probability of drought stress. So, one of the predictions of global warming is that with all of this heating, we are going to need to develop more drought-tolerant plants in the very near future."

Originating in the harsh conditions of the Namibian desert, the ice plant is hugely significant to scientists as the first plant which can be induced to switch from C3 ‘daytime’ photosynthesis to CAM ‘night time’ photosynthesis through either salinity stress or water deficiencies. CAM plants are five to six times more water-use efficient than C3 plants.

"We will catalog patterns of gene expression to know exactly which genes are important for doing CAM, and that's why the ice plant is such an important model, and that's why the DOE is interested in it," Cushman said. "So now, we can take those genes and reengineer them back to a C3 photosynthesis plant like wheat or rice, or a woody bioenergy feedstock like poplar, and we hope to make those more water-use efficient."

Cushman’s research has been chosen as one of 37 projects in the Joint Genome Institute’s Community Science Program.


This article was written by Daryl Worthington, assistant editor of Bioenergy Insight

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