Scientists’ surprise findings could help crops cope better with the British weather

PUBLISHED: 11:15 15 February 2019 | UPDATED: 11:41 15 February 2019

The John Innes Centre has made an important discovery about the process of vernalization in wheat crops. Picture : ANTONY KELLY

The John Innes Centre has made an important discovery about the process of vernalization in wheat crops. Picture : ANTONY KELLY

Researchers in Norwich have uncovered new evidence about crop development which could help farmers deal with financially-damaging weather fluctuations.

The John Innes Centre (JIC) has been investigating the important process of vernalization – a plant’s need for exposure to cold temperature to stimulate its transition from the vegetative state to flowering.

For decades, this has been a key focus of research into plant development and crop productivity, but exactly how it works under variable temperatures in the field has been unclear.

But now the JIC team, in collaboration with colleagues in Hungary and France, have shown that vernalization is influenced by warm conditions as well as cold, and at a much wider temperature range than previously thought.

Dr Laura Dixon, who is leading the research, said: “We have shown that vernalization responds to warmer conditions than those classically associated with vernalizing. Before this study we thought vernalization only happened up to a maximum of about 12C, but the true temperature is much higher. This information is immediately useful to [plant] breeders.”

READ MORE: Norwich crop scientists celebrate ‘speed-cloning’ breakthrough

Normally, once the vernalization process is complete, plant growth is accelerated under warm temperatures. But the team identified one wheat cultivar, named Charger, which did not follow this standard response. A wheat floral activator gene named VRN-A1 was responsible for this trait.

This study published in the journal Development highlights the “complex workings of a genetic network of floral activators and repressors that coordinate a plant’s response to a range of temperature inputs”.

It also finds that the Charger cultivar is an extreme version of a response to warmer temperatures that may be prevalent in winter wheat cultivars.

Dr Dixon added: “This study highlights that to understand the vernalization response in agriculture we must dissect the process in the field and under variable conditions. The knowledge can be used to develop new wheat cultivars that are more robust to changing temperatures.”

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