University of Essex researchers probe effects of stress on crops

PUBLISHED: 17:23 15 February 2019 | UPDATED: 17:23 15 February 2019

Essex University team looks at how crops and stress  Picture: BARRY PULLEN

Essex University team looks at how crops and stress Picture: BARRY PULLEN

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Plant biologists at the University of Essex have scooped half a million pound’s worth of funding to study how crops respond to different levels of stress in the environment.

The three-year project is part of ongoing research at the university looking into the interaction between plants and their environment, focusing on how light and drought stress affects crop yield and a plant’s biological timer, which regulates when it grows and flowers.

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As pressures on water supplies increase due to climate change, researchers are seeking to maintain or improve crop yield while limiting water use.

The project is being led by Dr Matt Jones, from the School of Biological Sciences. Part of the research will focus on dehydration stress using a series of controlled chambers to create environments with varying levels of drought-like conditions to see the effect on the crops.

“Plants respond to stress differently throughout the day and if we are to fully exploit the potential yield of crops it is vital that we understand how plants interact with their environment, especially during stresses such as drought which limit yield,” he said.

Plants have to cope with a range of different stresses in the environment – from bright light and varied temperature 
to disease and insects – which are linked with certain times of the day. These regular patterns have driven the evolution of biological timing mechanisms that enable plants to anticipate stress at particular times.

Researchers working on the project, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, are hoping to get a better understanding of the link between the metabolic changes in plants due to different stresses, and the corresponding knock-on impact on its biological timer – known as the circadian system.

“If we are to understand how crops respond to dehydration we need to see how those changes affect plants’ biological timers,” said Dr Jones. “We can then work out how to change the genetic makeup of the plant to make it more drought-tolerant while not reducing yield.”

The research team is also looking at light stress and will focus on gaining a better understanding of the link 
between light signalling and dehydration stress.

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