We are so lucky to have people still willing to go into science. While scientists have been the recipients of abuse and even death threats for taking on the thankless task of alerting humanity to the dire dangers that we all face from climate change – other scientists have heeded those warnings carefully, rather than hysterically, and put on their thinking caps to innovate solutions.
Scientists around the world have worked for a decade to solve one of the most apocalyptic aspects of climate change: that heat kills crops. This work is needed because, even just in the US, an 82% drop in corn and soy is predicted by the end of the century because there will be too many days over 86 degrees Fahrenheit in the Corn Belt, if we keep on adding greenhouse gases at the current rate.
Now, Philip Wigge and Vinod Kumar; two Norwich-based scientists at the John Innes Centre have just had the necessary breakthrough. They subjected grain plants to drought stresses that normally kill them, and isolated genes from survivors to create new variants, and just published their findings in the current edition of the US-based peer-reviewed scientific journal Cell.
They located the “thermometer” gene that helps plants sense temperature; even variations of just one degree Celsius, “and yet no one had asked how plants were able to do this”says Wigge.
They took the lab rat of plant research; the Arabidopsis (mustard) plant and studied all its genes to see which were affected by warmer temperature. It took five years for them to create a mutant plant that had lost its ability to sense temperature correctly. It grew as if the temperature was optimal all the time. The sensitive genes were then used in new plants.
It is possible that these scientists will be able to get it working just in time; within the next ten to fifteen years. In ten years, climate change impacts will be already widespread. Temperatures in the American West and Southwest could average nine degrees Fahrenheit hotter by the end of this century. Australia had to stop irrigating 40% of its crops in 2007.
The worldwide scientific consensus, as summarized in the papers at the last Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projected that food production in some regions could be severely compromised by 2020.
Whenever plants are subjected to extreme stress, such as very high or low temperatures, they do not flower and grow because they divert their food to their embryo.
“Their instinct is to protect the next generation,” said Wigge.
Plants are better adapted to survive, than people are, in that respect. They might outlive us. But then they have had a million or so more years to learn that clever trick.
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