Oxford researchers find gene to reduce environmental stress on plants

SP1 overexpressor plants (right) were healthy compared to wild type (left) and mutant plants (centre) when grown in high-saline conditions. | Paul Jarvis, University of Oxford
The Biotechnology and Biological Services Research Council (BBSRC) has discovered a gene that helps plants tolerate environmental stresses including drought.

The BBSRC-funded researchers at the University of Oxford believe the gene could create better stress-resistant crops. During stressful times, chloroplasts – the same structures used to carry out photosynthesis – can poison plants by producing substances known as reactive oxygen species.

Professor Paul Jarvis, from the University of Oxford’s Department of Plant sciences, recognized that a gene known as SP1 could help plants in stressful conditions. SP1 controls the development of chloroplasts in plants.

“With the human population growing rapidly, increasing pressure on natural resources and the threat of climate change, it’s more essential than ever to develop crops that can survive sub-optimal growing conditions,” Jarvis said. “We wanted to find out if SP1 helped plants to remain healthy by limiting the production of the toxic compounds made during photosynthesis in harsh conditions.”

 Experiments were conducted on three plants with varying amounts of SP1. Each plant was subjected to different stressful conditions: high salt concentrations, drought and the herbicide paraquat, which produces production of the toxic reactive oxygen compounds. The experiments determined the plants with more SP1 flourished, while those lacking SP1 did not grow.

 “All plants have the SP1 gene,” Jarvis said. “Now it’s just a question of getting plants to over-express it so that they can survive in adverse conditions.”

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