Scientists discover how to manipulate plants’ response to light for food growth

What if you could turn a plant’s genes on and off based on changes in light and temperature? This is exactly what a group of UC Riverside scientists did in a recent study that could have significant implications for farmers in a time of rapid and unpredictable climate change (reported by UC Riverside News).

Plants need light to develop and grow, and the protein found in plants that detects light is called phytochrome B. This particular protein changes the expression of genomes and changes the growth of plants based on the light information received. In addition, phytochrome B can control the activity of a group of proteins called PIF. If the activity of the PIF proteins is reduced, it could lead to a slowdown in the growth of the plant stem.

According to the researchers, this finding may help increase food production and crop yields. When plants are too close to each other in a field, they compete for light. Shorter plants that are in the shade of other plants exert extra energy to make their stems grow taller than their neighbors. This extra energy is taken from the growth of the “food part” of the plant, such as seeds, leaves or fruit.

The scientists, led by UCR botany professor Meng Chen, reduced PIF protein activity and stem growth. In turn, they found that plants with shorter stems can release energy to make the most desirable edible parts grow faster and more vigorously. They also found that manipulating a plant’s response to light can allow plants to grow closer together and in shade.

As the human population rapidly approaches 8 billion and is expected to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050, it is prudent to find alternative solutions to increase crop yields. Indoor farming, as practiced by companies like CropOne, AeroFarms and BrightFarms, allows for a fully controlled environment and can result in consistent crop yields. A company called InnerPlant edits plant DNA to turn the plant into a living sensor to mitigate crop losses.

Climate change is expected to affect growing seasons and the ability to grow certain crops around the world. However, studies like this give hope that one day crops will adapt better to fluctuations in light and temperature, making them viable in a rapidly changing environment.

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