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Scientists use ancient plant DNA to make breakthrough that could advance how we grow food: 'The initial results … are breathtaking'

"This knowledge could serve as a blueprint for creating climate-resilient food systems."

"This knowledge could serve as a blueprint for creating climate-resilient food systems."

Photo Credit: iStock

Human-caused global heating from sources such as the transportation, agriculture, manufacturing, and energy sectors is threatening a range of crops.

Six crops — rice, wheat, maize, potato, soybean, and sugarcane — account for 75% of humans' plant-based food intake, so ensuring the survival of these plants is essential for the food supply network.

Although human activity has exacerbated the overheating of the planet we are experiencing now and the rate at which it's happening, the Earth has experienced significant climate and weather changes during its existence, and many plants have adapted accordingly.

That's why scientists are studying ancient plant DNA samples to understand what methods plants have historically utilized to ensure survival. They hope this knowledge can be transferred and used to create more resilient crops. 

As AgFunderNews detailed, the Ancient Environmental Genomics Initiative for Sustainability is taking samples from all over the world and comparing them to modern plant DNA to figure out how plants adapted thousands of years ago.

Modern farming methods have relied on breeding plants to achieve certain characteristics, such as high yields to maximize agricultural profits, and to meet the demands of major food retailers. But perhaps engineering plants in this way has stopped them from adapting properly to a changing weather system and climate, and information about historic genetic diversity could fill in some of the knowledge gaps. 

"By employing ecosystem modeling, we can pinpoint which combinations of species led to the most durable ecosystems in the past," said evolutionary geneticist professor Eske Willerslev, who led the research. "This knowledge could serve as a blueprint for creating climate-resilient food systems, enhancing both the crops we grow and the sustainability of the environments they grow in."

The project has been backed by the Novo Nordisk Foundation and the Wellcome Trust, with $85 million pledged over the last seven years. Thankfully for its backers, the research has been bearing fruit.

"I can say the initial results so far are breathtaking," said Dr. Claus Felby, senior vice president of the Novo Nordisk Foundation. "For instance, we have found how rice adapted to a much wetter climate [in a part of China] about 8,000 years ago. And you can see down to the single gene how the whole ecosystem adapted. You can also see how the microbiology of the soil has changed."

Felby noted that DNA changes can be studied from as far back as 10,000 to 50,000 years ago. But studies have previously found DNA dating back millions of years. 

The findings so far could enable targeted and faster plant breeding while also making crops more resilient. This will be useful as plants increasingly deal with extreme weather conditions, such as drought and flooding, in the face of a warming climate.

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