Outwitting climate change with a plant ‘dimmer’?

From the TECHNICAL UNIVERSITY OF MUNICH (TUM) and the “dim and dimmer” department comes this finding that suggests GMO tweaking of plant DNA is the way to “outwit” the apparent nefarious intelligence of climate change.

Molecular mechanism responsible for blooming in spring identified

For many plant species, such as the thale cress, which is often used in research, but also for food crops such as corn, rice and wheat, there are now initiatives currently mapping the genome of many subspecies and varieties. CREDIT Photo: Regnault/ TUM

Outwitting climate change with a plant ‘dimmer’?

Plants possess molecular mechanisms that prevent them from blooming in winter. Once the cold of win-ter has passed, they are deactivated. However, if it is still too cold in spring, plants adapt their blooming behavior accordingly. Scientists from the Technical University of Munich (TUM) have discovered genetic changes for this adaptive behavior. In light of the temperature changes resulting from climate change, this may come in useful for securing the production of food in the future.

Everyone knows that many plant species bloom at different times in spring. The time at which a plant blooms in spring does not follow the calendar, but is instead determined by environmental factors such as temperature and day length. Biologists have discovered that plants recognize these environmental factors via genetically determined programs and adapt their growth accordingly.

In order to adapt to new climate zones and to ensure the evolutionary success of the species, these genetic programs may be adapted over the course of evolution. These adaptive processes take place passively: Minor changes (mutations) take place in the genetic material (DNA sequence) of the genes involved. If an adaptation proves successful over the following years, a new population establishes itself as a genetically distinct subspecies.

Comparison of Biological Adaptations with Genetic Changes

In order to find out which mutations were used particularly frequently over the course of evolution, scientists compare biological adaptations such as shifts in the point in time at which blooming takes place with existing genetic changes. For many plant species, such as the thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana), which is often used in research, but also for food crops such as corn, rice, barley and wheat, there are now initiatives currently mapping the genome (entire DNA sequence) of many subspecies and varieties. This makes comparisons at the DNA level particularly simple and efficient.

In the journal eLife, Ulrich Lutz from the Chair of Plant Systems Biology at the TUM and his colleagues from the Helmholtz Zentrum München jointly describe the results of a comparative sequence analysis of the FLM (FLOW-ERING LOCUS M) gene from over a thousand Arabidopsis genome sequences.

FLM binds directly to DNA, allowing it to influence the creation of other genes (transcription), which delays bloom-ing. Via comparisons of the FLM DNA sequence from over a thousand subspecies, Lutz was able to determine which genetic changes occurred frequently as this plant evolved: Generally speaking, these are the changes that provide the plant with an adaptive advantage found in a large number of subspecies. Mutations that did not pro-vide an advantage, on the other hand, were lost over time. The frequency of the changes is therefore an indication that these mutations were the most successful from an evolutionary point of view.

For the FLM gene he characterized, Lutz was able to demonstrate that the genetic changes that occur worldwide have an influence on how frequently and efficiently the FLM gene is read. As FLM is able to delay the point in time at which blooming occurs, a more intensive reading of the gene directly corresponds to later blooming. FLM be-haves much like a light dimmer that the plant uses to regulate gene activity — and hence blooming — on a continuous scale.

FLM Gene Acts Like a Controller

The underlying gene changes influenced this reading of FLM. Modified DNA was found in the area of the gene ‘switch’ (promoter), which regulates how much of the FLM gene is produced. In addition, the mechanism of gene splicing could also be observed: As part of this process, parts are cut out of the interim gene product. The quantity of active FLM can also be adapted via genetic changes that impact gene splicing. Hence, a direct dependency was found between the point in time of blooming and the quantity of the FLM gene, which in Arabidopsis can be finely adjusted via DNA sequence changes.

“The FLM variants we identified are ideal candidate genes that thale cress can use to adapt the point in time at which blooming takes place to the temperature changes caused by climate change,” said Professor Claus Schwechheimer from the Chair of Plant Systems Biology at TUM.

Findings May Help Plants Adapt to Climate Change

Temperature changes of just a few degrees Celsius during the growth phase of crop plants such as canola or sugar beets have a negative impact on agricultural production. In the future, the findings obtained by the team including the TUM scientists may allow the FLM gene to be used as a regulator to help adapt the blooming period to different temperatures as a result of climate change. With this knowledge, the goal of efficient food production over the long term is now within reach.


Publication: Ulrich Lutz, Thomas Nussbaumer, Manuel Spannagl, Julia Diener, Klaus F.X. Mayer, Claus Schwechheimer: Natural haplotypes of FLM non-coding sequences fine-tune flowering time in ambient spring temperatures in Arabidopsis, eLife 3/2017.



23 thoughts on “Outwitting climate change with a plant ‘dimmer’?

    • The longest standing thermometer record is in England and, recently, the flowers there have been blooming two weeks wearer than they were in the 1950s. However, the temperature record shows no warming. What is going on?

      Plants are more tolerant to extremes of hot and cold when they have more CO2. The rising CO2, which had dropped from over 400 ppm in the 1940s, made the 1950s plants unable to bloom as early was they were a decade or two earlier. So, plants are simply getting back to blooming earlier due to higher CO2.

      • It’s a combination of a very mild UK winter, lack of severe frosts and UHI effects. It’s not a trend, it’s an anomaly; given a hard winter we’d have seen a completely different result with no late autumn blooming flowers and few early spring ones.

  1. Absolutely wonderful future use of gene modification. I would like to grow oranges up north and cherries down south. This is the new “tech” age and it will be transformative.

    • I trust a “sarc” tag was omitted in ECB’s post. Following up, however: You do realize, I hope, that any gene modification that would exchange orange and cherry bloom/growth periods would also likely exchange the tastes, so northern-grown oranges would have more than a hint of cherry taste, while subtropical cherries would have a light citrus taste. While they’re at it, scientists should experiment with lengthening the growth/bloom/fruiting seasons by modifying the height of the trees to (e.g.) 150-200 feet, thus placing the tops of the trees in a slightly different altitude zone than the bottoms, with slower approach of spring at the top. S . A . R . C .

    • I have a Rangpur lime tree and two honey tangerines at 40N and 2000′ elevation. I have to use a portable greenhouse to get them through the winter. The lime tree is starting its bloom now, while the tangerines may or may not be old enough. I started the honey tangerines from seed from store bought fruit. They will be 3 years old this June.

      The Rangpur lime was developed and grown in the foothills of the Himalayas around 600 years ago, and is cold resistant. I hear that they make good root stock to use for other citrus trees. I am currently rooting 12 cuttings from the Rangpur lime. I plan to use a few of those for grafting purposes, tangerine, lemon, and an orange. My main project is to cross the honey tangerine with the Rangpur lime. I would call them Rangpur limerines.

  2. Biology ‘s Alinsky rules. Eventbough all evidence points to CO2 enrichment in the atmosphere almost doubling crop yields, the hysterical ones keep doubling down on a modest climate warming spelling disaster for growing food.

    Germans have been in the forefront of this anti-science destruction and although they once yielded much of the best in the hard sciences and engineering, they have not been notable biologists and plant scientists. If the Max Planck Institute has been turned into a Climateering kindergarten, woe to us all if they start doing Franken plant experiments.

  3. Plants don’t know climate. Plants know weather. It is the current local weather that they must survive in order to reproduce successfully. Plants alter the local environment to enhance their own survival. All successful embodied forms do this, too.

  4. Growth is different from development. Developmental phases follow the length of the day and temperature and soil type. In fact they have a range in which they sustain the development. At any given place, changes in temperature is not going to effect the growth when the required water supply is not effected. Soil water balance defines the growth. These issues are discussed in my book published in 1993.

    Dr. S. Jeevananda Reddy

    • All around my house lush with greenery. The flowers bloom and fresh leaves appear every year at the same time — after February and before March as the Sun approaches equator to move into north from south. Yellow flowers, whitish leaves show winter is gone coming into summer. In this period temperature presents high temperature diurnal variations with cloudy skies and clear skies.

      Dr. S. Jeevananda Reddy

  5. Seems a good idea. If changes are to rapid for evolution to arrive at the optimum solution of earlier blooming, then give a helping hand – basically providing the solution evolution would have come up with eventually.

  6. There is actually some interesting science in this because the effect comes from the non-coding regions of the DNA (so little chance of rationally manipulating it for the better at the moment). You just have to ignore the throw-away line about climate change that so many people feel compelled to include these days in the hope of securing funding.

  7. Ran across this recently from off Long Island area–

    “For the past several summers more than the usual numbers of southern fishes have been reported or brought to the Museum by the public, but these have all been, with the present exception, representatives of species which appear each year in some numbers. This seems to be in accordance with the general warming and more northward ranging of marine life along our north Atlantic coast.” C. M. Breder, Jr., The American Museum of Natural History, Copeia, 1960, P 73. He was a good scientist.

    Some three decades later I heard a seminar about inferior southern species (freshwater) replacing superior cold water ones.

  8. Minor changes (mutations) take place in the genetic material (DNA sequence) of the genes involved. If an adaptation proves successful over the following years, a new population establishes itself as a genetically distinct subspecies

    What a fascinating concept. Hang on though, didn’t Darwin have something to say about that?

    The fact that they have to say this (OK, it’s only in a press release), seems to this old geezer to highlight one of the tragedies of the 21st century, that everyone is educated but nobody seems to actually know anything.

    Excuse the digression. It’s called “descent with modification” – now known as natural selection, and it can be manipulated very easily by selective breeding, which is how and why we have strains of plants and animals that are far different from their prototypes, and this was mostly done before actual genetic manipulation started.

    If “climate” actually “changes” enough to put a species under stress, it will adapt by natural selection and/or by migrating to a more congenial area. Or, if it’s unlucky on both counts, it will die out in that particular ecosystem.

    The process of adaption can be accelerated hugely by selective breeding, and agriculture has been doing this for millenia. Lately, genetic modification has been tried, with some tangible success (and a lot of financial success for agribiz), and it completely bypasses the natural selection (with or without a helping hand) process.

    This study suggests a way of making GMOs that will thrive in climatic zones where their non-GMO predecessors would not. Particularly in northern areas where length of growing season is a limiting factor. Or maybe extending the climatic zones where two crops a year is a possibility.

    Interesting piece of research, with possibly important potential to help feed the world. Not really relevant to those of us trying to understand how and why climate changes (as opposed to those who already know that the science is settled and it’s all a function of CO2). They only mention climate change so they can stay in the funding stream (another tragedy of the 21st century, the politicized grant-giving process).

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