Existing technology could allow scientists to match physiological and genetic characteristics of plants with the soil characteristics that promote or inhibit their growth, reducing the time necessary to improve plants that are coping with changing environmental and climatic conditions, the researchers said.
"Evolution has solved the problems that we face in terms of adapting plants to grow in a multitude of environments," Purdue University genetics Professor Brian Dilkes said. "If we understand these processes, we'll be able to apply that knowledge to maintaining diversity in natural systems and improving and maintaining crop yield."
The majority of a plant's makeup, besides carbon dioxide, comes from elements and minerals absorbed from the soil as the plant grows, the researchers said, and understanding those processes from a physiological and genetic standpoint is an important piece of improving plants.
Much of the work done to date to understand how plants have adapted to their environments focuses on one gene and one element it controls at a time, they said. Pinpointing one or more genes responsible for a particular trait can take years, even decades.
"By focusing on one gene or one element at a time, you miss out on the other physiological mechanisms occurring in the plant," Dilkes said. "The potential to broaden our understanding of these complex interactions and have a dramatic effect on agriculture is there."
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