The Atacama Desert in Chile is the driest nonpolar place on Earth but life still survives in this harsh and high altitude environment. In fact, farming in this region goes back thousands of years and many plants are endemic to the area.
Desert plants have evolved to flourish under dry conditions and a team of scientists wanted to understand these mechanisms for future molecular breeding or genetic engineering of staple food crops to enable them to cope with a warming world. This could help to feed the global population as the world becomes too warm and dry for our current crop systems. Bearing this in mind, the scientists studied the genomics of plants that evolved to live in the Atacama Desert’s extremely dry conditions, to undertand how they have adapted to these extremes.
The study has revealed “how the adaptive strategies common or specific to the major plant lineages in the Atacama include enrichment of plant growth-promoting bacteria near their roots and positive selection of genes that are associated with key beneficial processes for plant survival.”
They discovered a variety of genetic adaptations that the plants have used to not only survive but thrive in the Atacama’s environment. Over a period of 10 years, plant system’s biologist Gloria Coruzzi and her team of researchers studied flora in 22 sites from the desert. They deep sequenced 32 dominant plant species and compared them with 32 closest sequenced species from other locations, which had different genetic adaptations. This helped them to identify 265 positively selected genes (PSGs) in the Atacama plants, which provided evidence to link some to plant resilience (such as Arabidopsis) and others with additional advantages to thrive in the Atacama Desert.
The positively selected genes in Arabidopsis enable the species to withstand resist stresses from high radiation and temperature, regulate floral development and flowering time, help defend against pathogens, and assist with water and nutrient uptake.
According to the study, “some of these extraordinarily resilient plants are closely related to staple crops, such as cereals, legumes, and the potato family, and therefore can provide invaluable genetic material for crop breeding. Thus, the uncovered candidate genes and sites, underlying the successful adaptation of these plants to their environment, can be targets to engineer crop resilience to face climate change. Such new crops would be key to sustain agricultural productivity in a scenario of increased desertification of our planet”.
In other words, the resilient plants that thrive in the Atacama Desert can help us breed and plant crops that can withstand future high temperatures and dry conditions that are likely to occur due to a changing climate.