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  • 2017-12-01 10:45:26
  • Article ID: 686034

Genes Found in Drought-Resistant Plants Could Accelerate Evolution of Water-Use Efficient Crops

  • Credit: Jason Richards/Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Dept. of Energy

    ORNL’s Xiaohan Yang led a team who identified a common set of genes that enable different drought-resistant plants to survive in semi-arid conditions. This finding could play a significant role in bioengineering energy crops tolerant to water deficits.

  • Credit: Jason Richards/Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Dept. of Energy

    An ORNL-led research team identified 60 genes that exhibited convergent evolution in crassulacean acid metabolism species, including a novel variant of a “worker” enzyme critical to CAM plants’ water-use efficiency. Representing the team are, from left, Degao Liu, Rongbin Hu, Xiaohan Yang, Robert C. Mosely and Kaitlin J. Palla.

  • Credit: Jason Richards/Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Dept. of Energy

    The team used ORNL’s Titan supercomputer to compare the genomes of Kalanchoë fedtschenkoi (back row) and Phalaenopsis equestris, or orchid (front row), as well as Ananas comosus, or pineapple.

OAK RIDGE, Tenn., Dec.1, 2017 – Scientists at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory have identified a common set of genes that enable different drought-resistant plants to survive in semi-arid conditions, which could play a significant role in bioengineering and creating energy crops that are tolerant to water deficits. 

Plants thrive in drylands by keeping their stomata, or pores, shut during the day to conserve water and open at night to collect carbon dioxide. This form of photosynthesis, known as crassulacean acid metabolism or CAM, has evolved over millions of years, building water-saving characteristics in plants such as Kalanchoë, orchid and pineapple. 

“CAM is a proven mechanism for increasing water-use efficiency in plants,” ORNL coauthor Xiaohan Yang said. “As we reveal the building blocks that make up CAM photosynthesis, we will be able to bioengineer the metabolic processes of water-heavy crops such as rice, wheat, soybeans and poplar to accelerate their adaptation to water-limited environments.” 

Scientists are studying a variety of drought-resistant plants to unlock the mystery of CAM photosynthesis. For this work, the ORNL-led team sequenced the genome of Kalanchoë fedtschenkoi, an emerging model for CAM genomics research because of its relatively small genome and amenability to genetic modification.  

The team investigated and compared the genomes of K. fedtschenkoi, Phalaenopsis equestris (orchid) and Ananas comosus (pineapple) using ORNL’s Titan supercomputer. 

“It is widely accepted that some unrelated plants exhibit similar characteristics under similar environmental conditions, a process known as convergent evolution,” Yang said. 

They identified 60 genes that exhibited convergent evolution in CAM species, including convergent daytime and nighttime gene expression changes in 54 genes, as well as protein sequence convergence in six genes. In particular, the team discovered a novel variant of phosphoenolpyruvate carboxylase, or PEPC. PEPC is an important “worker” enzyme responsible for the nighttime fixation of carbon dioxide into malic acid. Malic acid is then converted back to carbon dioxide for photosynthesis during the day. 

“These convergent changes in gene expression and protein sequences could be introduced into plants that rely on traditional photosynthesis, accelerating their evolution to become more water-use efficient,” said Yang. The team published their findings in Nature Communications. 

Smart water use

Crop production is the world’s largest consumer of freshwater. Availability of clean water resources is shrinking because of urbanization, human population growth and changes in climate, which presents a challenge to optimal growing environments. 

To address this concern, engineering CAM photosynthesis into food and energy crops could reduce agricultural water use and boost crops’ resilience when the water supply is less than desirable. 

“Studying the genome of water-efficient plants may also provide insights into a plant’s ability to use slightly saline water and maintain growth under higher temperature and lower clean water availability,” said Jerry Tuskan, coauthor and chief executive officer of the Center for Bioenergy Innovation led by ORNL. “If we can identify the mechanisms for water-use efficiency, we could move this trait into agronomic plants, supply non-potable water as irrigation to those plants and save the clean water for drinking.” 

The study titled, “The Kalanchoë genome provides insights into convergent evolution and building blocks of crassulacean acid metabolism,” included ORNL coauthors Xiaohan Yang, Rongbin Hu, Hengfu Yin, Degao Liu, Deborah Weighill, Robert Moseley, Sara Jawdy, Zhihao Zhang, Meng Xie, Paul Abraham, Ritesh Mewalal, Kaitlin Palla, Henrique Cestari De Paoli, Anne Borland, Jin-Gui Chen, Wellington Muchero, Daniel Jacobson, Timothy Tschaplinski, Robert Hettich and Jerry Tuskan. 

The study also included collaborators from University of Tennessee, HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, the DOE Joint Genome Institute, Fujian Agriculture and Forestry University, University of Nevada, University of Georgia, Northern Illinois University, University of Liverpool, University of Oxford, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Pacific Biosciences, Inc., Michigan State University, Newcastle University and Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. 

The research was funded by DOE’s Office of Science (Biological and Environmental Research, Genomic Science Program) and ORNL’s Laboratory Directed Research and Development program. The work also used resources of the Compute and Data Environment for Science at ORNL, a fully integrated infrastructure offering scalable computing, software support and high-performance cloud storage services and the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility, which is a DOE Office of Science User Facility. 

ORNL is managed by UT-Battelle for DOE’s Office of Science. The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit

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Scientists have used the Hubble Space Telescope to chemically analyze the gas in the Leading Arm (the arching collection of gas that connects the Magellanic Clouds to the Milky Way) and determine its origin.

Plants Really Do Feed Their Friends

Researchers at the Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and UC Berkeley have discovered that as plants develop they craft their root microbiome, favoring microbes that consume very specific metabolites. Their study could help scientists identify ways to enhance the soil microbiome for improved carbon storage and plant productivity.

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Design Approach Developed for Important New Catalysts for Energy Conversion and Storage

Northwestern University researchers have discovered a new approach for creating important new catalysts to aid in clean energy conversion and storage. The method also has the potential to impact the discovery of new optical and data storage materials and catalysts for higher efficiency processing of petroleum products at lower cost. The researchers created a catalyst that is seven times more active than state-of-the-art commercial platinum by combining theory, a new tool for synthesizing nanoparticles and more than one metallic element.

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Engineering Yeast Tolerance to a Promising Biomass Deconstruction Solvent

Chemical genomic-guided engineering of gamma-valerolactone-tolerant yeast.

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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Professor Jian Shi Receives Air Force Young Investigator Research Program Award

Jian Shi, assistant professor of materials science and engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, has won a Young Investigator Research Program (YIP) award from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR). Shi will use the three-year, $450,000 grant to pursue fundamental research on nanoscale complex materials that could lead to the development of next-generation resilient and high-performance energy conversion and sensing technologies.

Kerstin Kleese van Dam Receives 32nd Town of Brookhaven Annual Women's Recognition Award for Science

The award recognizes the contributions Kleese van Dam--director of Brookhaven Lab's Computational Science Initiative since 2015--has made to scientific computing and data management over the past three decades.

Jefferson Lab Announces New Accelerator Science Leader

The Department of Energy's Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility has announced that Andrei Seryi will become its new associate director for accelerator operations, research and development in June.

First Plasma for New Machine to Study Puzzling Process That Occurs Throughout the Universe

Announcement describes completion of construction of FLARE, a powerful new machine to study magnetic reconnection.

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Professor Jian Sun Receives Power Electronics Achievement Award

Jian Sun, professor of electrical, computer, and systems engineering and director the New York State Center for Future Energy Systems at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, received the 2017 R. David Middlebrook Outstanding Achievement Award from the IEEE Power Electronics Society (PELS). He was recognized for "contributions to modeling and control of power electronic converters and systems."

FGC Plasma Solutions Wins Top NASA Innovation Award

Argonne Chain Reaction Innovator Felipe Gomez del Campo has received the 2018 NASA iTech award for X-Factor Innovation.

Sandia Researcher Jacqueline Chen Elected to National Academy of Engineering

LIVERMORE, Calif. -- Jacqueline Chen, a distinguished member of the technical staff at Sandia National Laboratories, has been elected to the National Academy of Engineering. Chen is among the 99 new members from around the globe in the 2018 class.Election to the National Academy of Engineering is the highest professional distinction for an engineer in the United States.

PNNL Helps Form International Energy Storage Organization

News Release DALIAN, China -- Energy storage allows power operators across the nation to balance electricity supply and demand instantaneously, affording ratepayers a more resilient power supply.Now the focus on energy storage is global. In January, energy storage experts at the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory joined forces with their counterparts around the world to forge the International Coalition for Energy Storage and Innovation, or ICESI.

University Partnership to Help Nevada Scientists Commercialize Discovery

UNLV's Office of Technology Transfer and the Desert Research are partnering to help faculty and students leverage each other's talent and resources to transform inventions into new products and services.

DOE Seeks Industry Partners for HPC Research on Materials in Applied Energy Technologies

The Department of Energy (DOE) today announced a funding opportunity totaling $3 million to support projects between U.S. industry and DOE national laboratories related to improving materials in severe or complex environments through the new High Performance Computing for Materials in Applied Energy Technologies (HPC4Mtls) Program.

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Scaling Plant Traits Stymied by Uncertainty in Measured Global Photosynthesis

Multiple plausible hypotheses in how maximum photosynthetic rates scale across the Earth lead to substantial variability in predicting carbon uptake.

Small Poke -- Huge Unexpected Response

Exotic material exhibits an optical response in enormous disproportion to the stimulus -- larger than in any known crystal.

Turning Up the Heat on Remote Research Plots Without Electricity

Flexible, tunable technique warms plants without need for electricity, aiding ecosystem research in remote locales.

Engineering Yeast Tolerance to a Promising Biomass Deconstruction Solvent

Chemical genomic-guided engineering of gamma-valerolactone-tolerant yeast.

Saplings Survive Droughts via Storage

Certain species of trees retain stored water, limit root growth to survive three months without water.

Unlocking On-Package Memory's Effects on High-Performance Computing's Scientific Kernels

Intuitive visual analytical model better explains complex architectural scenarios and offers general design principles.

Data Dive: How Microbes Handle Poor Nutrition in Tropical Soil

High-performance computing reveals the relationship between DNA and phosphorous uptake.

The Secret Lives of Cells

Supercomputer simulations predict how E. coli adapts to environmental stresses.

It's Not Part of the Problem, but Part of the Solution

Americium(III) is selectively and efficiently separated from europium(III) by an extractant in an ionic liquid.

Buckyball Marries Graphene

Electronic and structure richness arise from the merger of semiconducting molecules of carbon buckyballs and 2-D graphene.


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