How plants adapt to climate change

University of Leeds
University of Leeds
6 min readFeb 22, 2023

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Dr Yoselin Benitez-Alfonso from the School of Biology explains how a network of collaborations is helping research make a greater impact.

A painting depicting the planet earth and farming on dry land, with water supplies helping to cultivate crops. Framing the design are researchers in lab coats, working with local communities. It features a sun that extends its scorching rays onto fields of five important crops: rice, maize, tomatoes, wheat, and beans. Cracked ground and wilted plants are visible where the intensity of the sun’s rays is the highest
An oil painting commissioned as part of the project titled: ‘Climate. Cultivation. Collaboration.’ by Dr Besiana Sinanaj.

Plants can’t move. When the conditions around them change, they can’t head elsewhere to find a more amenable situation. If faced with heat, drought or flooding — the kind of extremes becoming more common with climate change — plants have to adapt on the spot to survive. And some adapt more successfully than others.

My research focuses on how plants respond to changes in the conditions around them. I’m interested in one very specific piece of the jigsaw: cellular signals that are triggered by extreme conditions and then passed by the plant to the parts that need to adapt, such as the root system.

The signals take the form of proteins or genetic material that travels into and out of the cells through channels in the cell walls, called plasmodesmata.

My team and I have identified carbohydrates that control when the channels open and close in response to different stimuli, to allow the signals through. By using certain molecular markers that will attach to these carbohydrates, we’re able to highlight where they are and what they are doing at any given point — and, crucially, ways to change their behaviour.

Cress, clover and tomato

Three plants form the majority of my research. The first is Arabidopsis thaliana, or mouse-ear cress. This is the preferred plant of scientists around the world, since many genetically engineered lines are available to enable research on different aspects of plant development.

The second is Medicago truncatula, a type of clover which we use to model other legumes used as food crops, such as the chickpea. And finally, the tomato plant, which we use to research fruit development.

Small plants in trays. The first sample are healthy and show thick, fleshy leaves. The second sample are shrunken and dried out.
Arabidopsis: well watered (left) and after nine days of water withdrawal (right).

It’s likely to be a long time before the mechanisms that I’ve identified are used to develop a more resilient breed of crop, probably the rest of my working life! As my research is still just in the model plants, it’s going to require genetically engineering or breeding new varieties of food crop with those characteristics, navigating all the regulation that’s involved, and testing them under various conditions to be sure that the mechanisms we’ve identified in the models still work in the crop varieties.

However, despite the challenges involved in taking biological insights directly from my lab into the field, we are seeing our research have an impact in a much shorter timeframe — by working with other researchers around the globe.

My team has been helping colleagues from the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in India to identify genes that enable chickpeas to be more resilient to drought. The ICRISAT scientists found a number of candidate genes from drought-resistant chickpeas and we’ve put these genes into our model legume, Medicago truncatula.

We’ve not only been able to identify which gene was responsible for the plant becoming more drought resistant, but found that it did so by triggering the growth of longer roots.

From plant science to medicine

We’re also working with other scientists to apply our research in a totally different field: medicine.

The antibodies that we’ve developed that bind to the carbohydrates in our model plants, work equally well in certain fungi that are responsible for infections in humans, in particular aspergillus and candida. We’re now working with clinicians from Leeds Teaching Hospitals and Sheffield Teaching Hospitals to see if these antibodies can be used to create new diagnostic tools to detect fungal infections.

Researchers sat in a seminar room listening to a presentation.
Reaching blue skies for a sustainable future. Worldwide Universities Network (WUN) meeting, June 2022, University of Leeds.

Developing new applications like these is only possible by thinking laterally about our research — looking more broadly at what exactly we’ve discovered and how it could be used. And that’s only really possible if you make connections with many different people from many different research areas.

It was in this spirit that I set up a research network to address the impact of heatwaves and droughts on food security. Funded through the Worldwide Universities Network (WUN), the project involves 12 universities, from the UK, USA, China, Canada, Australia and Brazil.

The network also has members from outside WUN, including ICRISAT and a large number of European institutions, to open up the possibility of EU funding.

Being part of the network opens up many new opportunities for research. At the University of Leeds, we can grow many plant species in our specialised greenhouses and on the University farm, but there many key crop species we can’t grow. By bringing in partners from other climates, we immediately expand the range of plants we can work with.

International and interdisciplinary

The network funding was awarded just before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, so initial meetings of the partners were held online. However, the network has just held its first hybrid meeting in Leeds, with some partners able to meet face to face. The aim of the meetings is to share information on research, and identify potential areas for collaboration and sources of funding to apply for.

Although established by plant scientists like myself, the network draws in researchers from a range of disciplines. We’ve got researchers from psychology, politics and business involved, as addressing food security is multi-faceted.

You might identify or engineer a new plant variety, but that won’t help food security if it’s not acceptable to people, if it isn’t supported by policy or enabled by the right investment. There’s no point just thinking about your work in isolation — you need to consider all the angles that will enable it to have impact.

Dr Yoselin Benitez-Alfonso is Associate Professor in Plant Sciences at the University of Leeds.

About the painting

‘Climate. Cultivation. Collaboration.’ is a painting by Dr Besiana Sinanaj that depicts the problems and solutions associated with a potential future where the impact of drought and rising temperatures on food security is profound.

Set on a backdrop of tree rings — our living record of the planet’s climate history — four scientists and an indigenous leader crowd around a scene of farmers cultivating their crops and share ideas.

The scene, portrayed in the symbolic shape of an opening eye, features a sun that extends its scorching rays onto fields of five important crops: rice, maize, tomatoes, wheat, and beans. Cracked ground and wilted plants are visible where the intensity of the sun’s rays is the highest. Despite the alarming nature of the scene, the onlookers appear thoughtful, optimistic and connected as they brainstorm strategies to tackle the problem.

A painting depicting the planet earth and farming on dry land, with water supplies helping to cultivate crops. Framing the design are researchers in lab coats, working with local communities. It features a sun that extends its scorching rays onto fields of five important crops: rice, maize, tomatoes, wheat, and beans. Cracked ground and wilted plants are visible where the intensity of the sun’s rays is the highest
‘Climate. Cultivation. Collaboration.’ by Dr Besiana Sinanaj

Interdisciplinary collaboration is at the heart of their discussions, as they pool their individual expertise which are depicted on the objects they are holding and the designs of their clothing. From left to right: CRISPR-Cas9 (gene-editing and genomics), grains and pulses (crop breeding), interactions (modelling and ecology), intertwining plants (intercropping and ancient land management), and stomata (physiology and development).

As long as knowledge is able to flow freely across disciplines and between people of diverse backgrounds, there is hope yet in addressing our current and future climate challenges.

Follow Dr Besiana Sinanaj on Twitter, or visit the website at www.besiana.co.uk.

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University of Leeds
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