Gene-edited crops that ‘communicate with environment’ could launch next green revolution

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Researchers at the Institute of Network Biology in Germany and their colleagues …. published a study in Nature showing that plants communicate with the environment in more complex ways than previously thought. The investigation revealed that the information-processing network, driven by hormones, in one genus of plants is carried out by more than 2,000 protein interactions, hundreds of which had not been discovered before.

“We’re going to need a second green revolution,” [to feed a growing population] says Shelley Lumba, a plant biologist at the University of Toronto, who was not involved in the study. “These would be good leads to test.”

New technologies, including CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing, can make genetic modification relatively straightforward. Scientists hoping to tweak plant genes must first know what they are looking for, however. Focusing on systems rather than individual genes could prove useful. To activate their defenses against insects, for example, plants might have to shut down another hormone pathway, such as growth or water conservation.

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“There are a lot of trade-offs that are fundamental to plant physiology, and we know they’re there, but they’re not characterized in a quantitative way,” [says Matthew Hudson, a crop scientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign].

Making plants more flexible might be more important than giving them specific traits. “Hormones permit responses to take place,” Lumba says. “They’re not instructing; they’re allowing environmental stimulation to be read.”

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