How have plants adapted to drought?

Knockout mutations allow wild Arabidopsis thaliana plants to produce flowers at times in the year when droughts are less likely.
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Exploring the genetic basis of how plants adapt to droughts. The map shows the vegetative health index during the summer of 1982 (blue = healthy vegetation; red = stressed vegetation). Image credit: Monroe et al. (CC BY 4.0)

Water shortages caused by droughts lead to crop losses that affect billions of people around the world each year. By discovering how wild plants adapt to drought, it may be possible to identify traits and genes that help to improve the growth of crop plants when water is scarce. It has been suggested that plants have adapted to droughts by flowering at times of the year when droughts are less likely to occur. For example, if droughts are more likely to happen in spring, the plants may delay flowering until the summer.

Arabidopsis thaliana is a small plant that is found across Eurasia, Africa and North America, including in areas that are prone to drought at different times of the year. Individual plants of the same species may carry different versions of the same gene (known as alleles). Some of these alleles may not work properly and are referred to as loss-of-function alleles. Monroe et al. investigated whether A. thaliana plants carry any loss-of-function alleles that are associated with droughts happening in the spring or summer, and whether they are linked to when those plants will flower.

Monroe et al. analyzed satellite images collected over the last 30 years to measure when droughts have occurred. Next, they searched genome sequences of Arabidopsis thaliana for alleles that might help the plants to adapt to droughts in the spring or summer. Combining the two approaches revealed that loss-of-function alleles associated with spring droughts were strongly predicted to be associated with the plants flowering later in the year. Similarly, loss-of-function alleles associated with summer droughts were predicted to be associated with the plants flowering earlier in the year.

These findings support the idea that plants can adapt to drought by changing when they produce flowers, and suggest that loss-of-function alleles play a major role in this process. New techniques for editing genes mean it is easier than ever to generate new loss-of-function alleles in specific genes. Therefore, the results presented by Monroe et al. may help researchers to develop new varieties of crop plants that are better adapted to droughts.