Spores help rice cope with drought and rising salt concentrations in soil.
To ward off famine and potentially save millions of lives, researchers are looking for a little help from a tiny fungus.
By colonizing seeds with spores from naturally occurring fungi, experiments show that rice — a major world food source — is able to withstand stresses associated with climate change, such as drought and soil salinity. The results were published by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in the journal PLoS ONE.
“What makes this remarkable is that we can move these fungi around,” said USGS researcher Rusty Rodriguez. “The contemporary thought is that the plant itself adapts to the stress, but what we’ve been observing is that that isn’t always the case. Plants can have associations with fungi and then tolerate certain types of stresses.”
The team first examined dune grass, which can tolerate high levels of salt, and discovered that its adaptive ability comes from the presence of a fungus. The same fungus was then applied to rice, and remarkably the crop thrived, achieving a notable increase in salt tolerance.
The same experiment was tried with plants that can tolerate high degrees of heat and produced the same result. Both tests were done on rice varieties that did not have natural abilities to withstand these stresses.
This new area of research is dubbed “symbiogenetics,” for symbiosis-altered gene expression. The process does not change the DNA of the rice; instead, it recreates a phenomenon already taking place in nature.
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