Plants Under Stress: Why Should We Worry?

Article topic: 
The Garden

'The green revolution of the 1970s reduced chronic hunger from 40% to 20% of the world population while the population has doubled, but 840 million people are still chronically undernourished. Environmental stress accounts for up to an 80% loss in crop yields which translates into a massive loss of food worldwide. Since plants cannot move, they have developed a complex network of responses to stress that help them survive. Some of these strategies are not necessarily geared to crop productivity though, but rather are the product of evolutionary pressures for individual survival. We are trying to understand the internal signals that help plants survive stress so that we can transfer these mechanisms to crop plants and try to reduce crop losses from environmental stress. This is critically important now and increasingly so in the face of climate change. A key factor in plant’s response to stress is the duration and severity of the stress. For a short period a plant can switch on protective mechanisms, for example to drought, and switch them off again once in rains. However if the stress is too severe or too long, it may be better to allow some of the leaves to die for the benefit of the whole plant. Plants respond to stress at many levels, but ultimately they need to protect their cells from damage. To do this they need to switch on the genes that make the right proteins for the job. New technologies allow us to look at thousands of genes at once and get a read-out of which genes are responding to stress. It can help us to find out which genes respond specifically to one stress, which are generic responses and which are in fact a sign that the plant is giving up and the cells are destined to die. Once we have a grip on the genes that are most useful in protecting a plant from stress and that can also help a crop plant to be more productive under stress we can try to bring about a new green revolution to get the most out of the crops we grow wherever we want or need to grow them!'

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