Flood-proof crops? Plants engineered to grow taller may survive unstable environments

thailands rice farmers
Credit: Siebe Baarda

Stature matters to plants. Short crops can carry more grain without bending under their own weight—a key trait that helped power the Green Revolution in the 1960s. But tall plants are better at surviving long floods. Now, researchers have found two genes that together help control the height of rice plants: one that accelerates the elongation of the stem and another that acts as a brake. If the system is similar in other plants, scientists say it could be useful in the breeding of many kinds of crops.

The team compared the DNA of one species of deep-water rice with another rice variety that can only grow in shallow water. They soon located the two genes, which they dubbed ACE1 (accelerator of internode elongation) and DEC1 (decelerator of internode elongation). Greenhouse experiments showed what the genes did: In deep-water rice, ACE1 turns on when plants are covered in water, stimulating cell division in their stems and helping them grow, the researchers report …. in Nature. But a typical shallow-water variety, which has a mutation in ACE1, did not lengthen its stem when flooded.

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 The two new genes could act like a simple “dimmer switch” for plant height, says Susan McCouch, a rice biologist at Cornell University ….

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