On a frigid Arctic landscape, thousands of bright green shoots poke out of the snow, spreading their leaves toward the sun. A brand new cornfield thrives in the fertile farmland of Canada’s far north. Of course, this glacial cornfield isn’t real. But a new discovery about what makes plants sensitive to cold suggests that it might be someday.
Researchers at the University of Edinburgh and University of York in the United Kingdom have discovered that a protein called SPATULA causes plants to stop growing when temperatures get too low. The scientists found a mutant plant in the cabbage family that doesn’t produce SPATULA. In a paper published last month in Current Biology, the team reported their findings: When conditions are warm, the mutant and the normal plant grow at the same rate. But when temperatures drop to 59 degrees Fahrenheit, the mutant grows twice as fast as its cold-sensitive sister.
University of York biologist Steve Penfield, a researcher on the team, says that by manipulating SPATULA and other mechanisms that control plant growth, scientists can get plants to thrive in conditions they would not normally tolerate. He hopes that applying this strategy to crop plants could mean increased food production for the rapidly expanding population of the future.
“We know the climate is going to change, and we want to understand the effects this will have on our ecosystems,” says Penfield. “We want to bring crops into new environments and mitigate against climate change.”
Penfield thinks that the most feasible short-term application would be to extend the growing season. Today, most crops grown in cold places don’t produce very much, because their growing seasons are short. Crops devoid of their SPATULA proteins could be planted earlier in the spring and harvested well into fall.
The vision of a fertile tundra might be further off. “When it comes to growing plants in colder environments, there are other problems,” says Penfield. Crops will have to be frost tolerant, he says, and farmers will need a way to plow and seed frozen, nutrient-poor soil. The environmental consequences of planting crops in climates unaccustomed to them will have to be considered as well.
“It’s a step forward, but lots more steps are needed,” says Jonathan Franz, a research horticulturalist at the University of Toledo. To Penfield and his team, it’s a step toward feeding a changing world.