JERUSALEM (AFP) — Israeli scientists said on Wednesday they had identified genes that help plants weather harsh conditions, a discovery that could lead to the development of crops better able to endure climate change.
The study, carried out by scientists at Israel's Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, found that mutating one of two genes in a model plant increased its ability to survive better in desert environments.
"We manipulated these genes to enhance the plant's own tolerance systems, making the plant more resistant to salinity, heat and drought," Simon Barak, the author of the study, said in a statement released by the university.
"As we decode the exact mechanism linking the genes to the degree of tolerance, we will understand them better, but so far we have only had a tiny glimpse," he added.
The two genes are part of a family of some 50 genes whose precise function in plants is unknown, but which in other organisms regulate gene expression, including one which is similar to a gene linked to tumour growth in humans.
"Ideally, we would like to create varieties of staple crops such as corn and rice that are more tolerant to multiple environmental stresses," Barak said.
"The group has been researching the genome databases for some of these plants and has already found similar genes."
The development of plants better able to endure harsh desert conditions could prove extremely important to Israel and other countries in the Middle East and North Africa suffering from increasing shortages of water.
It could also have global implications, as climate change is expected to lead to significant drops in the production of key crops in both Asia and Africa, according to a study released by Stanford University last week.
The study found that southern Africa could lose more than 30 percent of its main crop maize, while South Asia's production of regional staples including millet, maize and rice is projected to drop by 10 percent or more.
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