AS CLIMATE CHANGE MAKES GROWING SEASONS LESS PREDICTABLE, SCIENTISTS DIG INTO A NOVEL APPROACH TO BOOSTING CROP RESILIENCE

Ensia discusses how climate change is affecting food production. Epigenetic modification of plants shows promise for enhancing food security — but we still have a lot to learn.

Growing vegetables has never been easy, but climate change is ramping up the risk. “Fresh market agriculture is a nail-biting proposition,” says Mackenzie, whose father was a West Coast produce distributor. “One rain at the wrong time can wipe out a tomato crop, and that’s hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Increasingly unpredictable growing seasons are a threat to income and livelihoods not only in California, where rising temperatures coupled with scarce precipitation have taken a nearly US$3 billion toll on the state’s agricultural industry, but also around the world. Now Mackenzie is working to do something about that. As producers and scientists search for ways to make crops more resilient in the face of such challenges, she sees promising potential in tapping into plants’ natural ability to rapidly turn select genes on and off in response to stress.

Both Mackenzie and Springer are interested in the role that epigenetic mechanisms — the biological processes that activate and deactivate genes — may play in this dynamic balance between yield potential and yield stability. If breeders could enhance plants’ ability to flip the switch as environmental conditions change, it could make it possible to (for instance) activate physiological changes that enhance drought tolerance only when needed, avoiding the ding on productivity.

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