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Researchers uncover new way to hack plants' circadian rhythms to grow drought-resistant crops: 'This could be a significant breakthrough'

There are a couple of ways this could play out in our fields and on our plates.

There are a couple of ways this could play out in our fields and on our plates.

Photo Credit: iStock

Growing drought-resistant crops just got a whole lot easier thanks to a groundbreaking discovery by researchers at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. This could be a major step toward protecting our food supply as the planet heats up.

So, what's the secret? Plants have a built-in timer, called a circadian clock, that they use to manage how they respond to changes in their environments throughout the day.

The University of Southern California scientists figured out that plants use this clock to regulate how they handle changes in water and salt levels in the soil, according to a news release.

The researchers zeroed in on a specific protein, called ABF3, that acts like a control switch for the plant's stress response. Throughout the day, the circadian clock fine-tunes ABF3 levels to help the plant adapt to shifting water conditions. Then ABF3 sends feedback to the clock to keep the plant chugging along and growing, even when water is scarce.

To make this discovery, the team studied a small plant called arabidopsis — the lab rat of the plant world. What they learned could be a game-changer for some of our most important food crops.

"This could be a significant breakthrough in thinking about how to modulate crop plants to be more drought resistant," Steve A. Kay, study senior author and director of the USC Michelson Center for Convergent Bioscience, said.

There are a couple of ways this could play out in our fields and on our plates. Plant breeders could start selecting crops with just the right variation of this ABF3 circuit to give them an edge during dry spells. Or scientists could use gene editing to soup up ABF3 and create super drought-resistant plants.

The end goal? Crops that survive and even thrive in a world with more frequent and severe droughts. That means more reliable harvests and a more stable food supply for all of us. And as a bonus, crops that are better at managing water and salt could help farmers use less of those precious resources.

There's still work to be done to get these resilient crops from lab to field. But armed with this new knowledge about plants' internal clocks, scientists are well on their way to helping our food supply weather whatever droughts throw our way. And that's news we can all feel good about.

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