The discovery of a 'nourishing gene' that controls how nutrients are distributed in plants and crops could offer hope for improved crop yield and increased food production, say researchers.
The research – published in Current Biology – reveals the discovery of a new gene, called Meg1, that regulates the amount of nutrients transferred from plants to their seeds. The research team behind the discovery, from the University of Warwick, UK, said the finding is a significant step which could help increase global food production.
"These findings have significant implications for global agriculture and food security, as scientists now have the molecular know-how to manipulate this gene by traditional plant breeding or through other methods to improve seed traits, such as increased seed biomass yield,” said Dr Jose Gutierrez-Marcos, who led the research.
"This understanding of how maize seeds and other cereal grains develop – for example in rice and wheat - is vital as the global population relies on these staple products for sustenance,” he added.
The team, who worked in collaboration with the University of Oxford and agricultural biotech research company Biogemma, identified named Meg1 only on maternal chromosomes. They noted that such uniparental gene expression, called imprinting, is unusual but not unknown in all plants and animals.
While scientists have known for a while of the existence of such imprinted genes in humans and other mammals, this is the first time a similar gene to regulate nutrient provisioning during seed development has been identified in the plant world, said the researchers.
The findings mean that scientists can now focus on using the gene and understanding the mechanism by which it is expressed to increase seed size and productivity in major crop plants.
"To meet the demands of the world's growing population in years to come, scientists and breeders must work together to safeguard and increase agricultural production," explained Gutierrez-Marcos.
"While the identification of MEG1 is an important discovery in its own right, it also represents a real breakthrough in unravelling the complex gene pathways that regulate the provisioning and nutritional content of seeds," added Professor Hugh Dickinson of Oxford University's Department of Plant Sciences – who also contributed to the study.
Source: Current Biology
Published online ahead of print, doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2011.11.059
“Maternal Control of Nutrient Allocation in Plant Seeds by Genomic Imprinting”
Authors: L.M. Costa, J. Yuan, J. Rouster, W. Paul, H. Dickinson, J.F. Gutierrez-Marcos