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Snow laughing matter - New study tackles future of cold-resistant crop engineering

A new study from the University of Illinois may provide a novel approach at tackling cold-resistant crop engineering. Stock Photo1 / 2
Snow covered crop field. Stock2 / 2

When temperatures fall below 32 degrees, crops exposed to the elements undergo biochemical changes designed to protect cells from cold stress damage. Scientists identified the genes controlling this phenomena years ago, but have struggled to use the knowledge to engineer cold-resistant crops.

A new study from the University of Illinois may provide a novel approach at tackling cold-resistant crop engineering.

The study, authored by Dr. Gustavo Caetano-Anolles, went beyond traditional approaches of examining a single gene, protein or biochemical pathway and instead simultaneously examined the entire collection of genes, metabolites, pathways and reactions undertaken in a plant's cold stress response.

"The chances are slim that breeders could successfully modify a single gene and achieve greater cold tolerance. We needed to understand the entire system," Caetano-Anolles said. "Our study identifies significant metabolites associated with important traits in a step forward in metabolic profiling techniques."

State-of-the-art gene sequencing provided researchers at the University of Illinois with the possibility to generate a complete list of all the genes and proteins active during the cold stress response, and, using a database, annotated the network involved. The study may have also unintentionally addressed herbicide resistance in weeds.

"Our analysis revealed stress-associated metabolites in numerous pathways that we didn't think would respond to cold stress, including amino acids, carbohydrates, lipids, hormones, photosynthesis and signaling pathways," Caetano-Anolles said. "The study opened remarkable opportunities for genetic engineering and synthetic biology moving forward."

In North Dakota, the prospects of a cold-resistant crop is music to farmers' ears.

"We could use that in our wheat for sure," Doug Opland, a United Agronomy LLC agronomist, said. "If we could seed half of our wheat in the fall and it would be ready to grow again in the spring, that would take the pressure off."

The study has been touted as a big step in one day engineering cold-tolerant crops, such as winter soybeans, corn, wheat and cotton—each potentially immune to the harsh winters experienced in the Midwest.

"It would be huge up in this country if you could seed half your crop in the fall and the winter wouldn't kill it; it would be huge," Opland said. "This is especially big if you have a late spring, which we've had. It's terrible. You have three weeks to get everything in, so a real-world application of a true cold-tolerant crop would be a real pressure relief."

Unlike in years past, North Dakota continues to see a burst in corn and soybeans production. Advances in cold-tolerance and changes in weather patterns have seen both high-value crops slowly become a staple crop among farmers in the state. The advances made in the new study could introduce other crops not previously grown during the fall and winter in the state, a fact that excites Opland.

"We've tried Fall canola before and it never really worked. It wasn't very good," Opland said. "If you have an open winter and it's very cold, you're going to have some cold damage. So a real cold-tolerant canola could be beneficial here in North Dakota."

The full report of the study, "Metabolite-centric reporter pathway and tripartite network analysis of Arabidopsis under cold stress," can be located in Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology.