February 11, 2008, Updated September 13, 2012

Finding the genes that help plants survive arid desert conditions: Dr. Simon Barak.

Israeli researchers have identified the genes that allow plants to tolerate and survive the harsh desert conditions of heat, drought and salinity.

The discovery, by a team of scientists at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, could lead to the development of staple crops like corn and rice that can cope with the climate changes associated with global warming.

Temperature extremes, drought and saline soils are the three main causes of low crop yields, and most annual crop losses are due to such environmental difficulties.

Experts estimate that by the year 2025, crop yields will need to increase by 40 percent to support the ever-growing world population. At the same time, however, global climate change is resulting in a loss of fertile areas, and an increased amount of desert-like soil conditions, which are less conducive to plant growth.

These problems are already affecting Israel and other countries in the Middle East and North Africa, which are suffering increasing water shortages, and are likely to have a profound impact on crop production in Asia and Africa.

The Ben Gurion study, published in Plant Physiology last November, was led by Dr. Simon Barak, a lecturer and researcher of the Albert Katz Department of Dryland Biotechnologies at Ben-Gurion University’s Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research.

The research group discovered that by mutating one of two genes in a model plant, Arabidopsis thaliana (whose genome has been sequenced), stress tolerance to desert conditions could be increased to higher levels.

“We manipulated these genes to enhance the plant’s own tolerance systems, making the plant more resistant to salinity, heat and drought,” said Barak. “As we decode the exact mechanism linking the genes to the degree of tolerance, we will understand them better, but so far we have only had a tiny glimpse.”

The two genes are part of a family of some 50 genes in Arabidopsis, whose function in plants is unknown. In other organisms, these genes regulate gene expression, including one that is similar to a gene involved in tumor growth in humans.

“Ideally, we would like to create varieties of staple crops such as corn and rice that are more tolerant to multiple environmental stresses” said Barak. “The group has been researching the genome databases for some of these plants and has already found similar genes.”

Barak and his researchers are now looking to collaborate with biotech companies to commercialize the technology.


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