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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 http://science.energy.gov/.

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Columbia Researchers Squeeze Light into Nanoscale Devices and Circuits

Columbia investigators have made a major breakthrough in nanophotonics research, with their invention of a novel "home-built" cryogenic near-field optical microscope that has enabled them to directly image, for the first time, the propagation and dynamics of graphene plasmons at variable temperatures down to negative 250 degrees Celsius. If researchers can harness this nanolight, they will be able to improve sensing, subwavelength waveguiding, and optical transmission of signals.

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An international team led by scientists at Berkeley Lab and UC Berkeley discovered how to exploit defects in nanoscale and microscale diamonds and potentially enhance the sensitivity of magnetic resonance imaging and nuclear magnetic resonance systems while eliminating the need for their costly and bulky superconducting magnets.

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Supersonic Waves May Help Electronics Beat the Heat

Researchers at the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory made the first observations of waves of atomic rearrangements, known as phasons, propagating supersonically through a vibrating crystal lattice--a discovery that may dramatically improve heat transport in insulators and enable new strategies for heat management in future electronics devices.

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Flexible, Highly Efficient Multimodal Energy Harvesting

A piezoelectric ceramic foam supported by a flexible polymer support provides a 10-fold increase in the ability to harvest mechanical and thermal energy over standard piezo composites, according to Penn State researchers.


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Power to the People

The University of Utah College of Engineering has received a $2 million grant to create a laboratory and develop new technology for communities with backup power sources, known as microgrids, so they can quickly and more securely operate in the event of a massive power outage due to a natural disaster or cyberattack.

The U. S. Department of Energy Announces $34 Million for Small Business Research and Development Grants

U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry announced that the Department of Energy will award 219 grants totaling $34 million to 183 small businesses in 41 states. Funded through DOE's Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs, today's selections are for Phase I research and development.

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Sandia National Laboratories will receive $10.5 million from the Department of Energy to research and design a cheaper and more efficient solar energy system.The work focuses on refining a specific type of utility-scale solar energy technology that uses mirrors to reflect and concentrate sunlight onto a receiver on a tower.

Solar Turbines, Inc. Selects Penn State to Establish Center of Excellence in Gas Turbines

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ORNL Facility Receives American Nuclear Society's Historic Landmark Designation

The American Nuclear Society has designated the Radiochemical Engineering Development Center at the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory an ANS Nuclear Historic Landmark, recognizing more than 50 years of isotope production and nuclear fuel cycle research.

Steven Cowley named director of DOE's Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory

Steven Cowley, a theoretical physicist and international authority on fusion energy, has been named director of the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL), effective July 1.

Scientists Turn X-ray Laser Into World's Fastest Water Heater

Scientists have used a powerful X-ray laser at the Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory to heat water from room temperature to 100,000 degrees Celsius in less than a tenth of a picosecond, or millionth of a millionth of a second.

PNNL Part of a New National Center for Near-Atomic Resolution of Biological Molecules

A collaboration between the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Oregon Health & Science University has been chosen as a national center for a Nobel Prize-winning method of imaging, cryo-electron microscopy, that is revolutionizing structural biology.

SLAC Will Open One of Three NIH National Service Centers for Cryo-Electron Microscopy

The National Institutes of Health announced today that it will establish a national service and training center for cryogenic electron microscopy research at the Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.

Planck Collaboration Wins 2018 Gruber Cosmology Prize

The Planck Team--including researchers in Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's (Berkeley Lab's) Computational Research and Physics divisions--have been awarded the 2018 Gruber Cosmology Prize.


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Cracking the Code of Superconductivity and Magnetism

Neutron probes and theory reveal how electrons cooperate at lower temperatures.

The Secret to Measuring an Antineutrino's Energy

Scientists are developing better models that describe both neutrino and antineutrino data, which can offer insights into the nature of the universe.

How to Cope with Cases of Mistaken Identity: MINERvA's Tale of Pions and Neutrinos

Neutral pion production is a major character in a story of mistaken identity worthy of an Agatha Christie novel.

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Optimizing lithium-sulfur battery electrolytes for long life.

Huge "Thermometer" Takes Temperatures of Tiny Samples

New spectroscopic technique measures heat in itty-bitty volumes that could reveal insights for electronics and energy technology.

Water, Water, Everywhere, but How Does It Flow?

Scientists use new X-ray technique to see how water moves at the molecular level.

Magnetized Plasmas That "Twist Light" Can Produce Powerful Microscopes and More

A non-twisting laser beam moving through magnetized plasma turns into an optical vortex that traps, rotates, and controls microscopic particles, opening new frontiers in imaging.

Whistling While You Work: Fusion Scientists Find Inspiration in Atmospheric Whistles

Just like lightning, fusion plasmas contain odd electromagnetic whistler waves that could control destructive electrons in fusion reactors.

Zero Tolerance in Tokamaks: Eliminating Small Instabilities Before They Become Disruptions

Energetic ions and beam heating cause or calm instabilities, depending on the tokamak's magnetic field.


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