2016 “How Plants Work” News Highlights – November

From Where Potatoes Came From to Where Agriculture Is Going

Last November the plant research news ranged from the past history of one of our most important crop plants to the future of agriculture in the 21st century.

  • November is the month of Thanksgiving in the USA, and one common feature of today’s Thanksgiving feasts was not present at the Pilgrim’s original one – potatoes.

    That’s because potatoes are native to South America and had not yet made their way to North America.
    Where in South America potatoes first became domesticated, however, is still unknown. Recent genetic studies point to the Andean highlands in southern Peru and northwestern Bolivia as the crop’s birthplace, but a lack of direct plant evidence has made it difficult to confirm.”

    Who First Farmed Potatoes? Archaeologists in Andes Find Evidence.

  • The fungus Piriformospora indica colonizes the roots of different plants. This can be orchids, tobacco, barley or even moss. It penetrates into the roots, but does not damage the plants.

    As reported in November of last year, a protein produced by this fungus may be able to suppress the innate immune system of its plant host.

    How a fungus inhibits the immune system of plants.

  • Farmers looking to reduce reliance on pesticides, herbicides and other pest management tools may want to heed the advice of Cornell agricultural scientists: Let nature be nature – to a degree.

    Wicked weeds may be agricultural angels.

  • Millions of years ago, some plants in the mustard family made the switch from simple leaves to complex leaves through two tiny tweaks to a single gene. One tweak to a small enhancer sequence gave the gene a new domain of expression in the leaf. Paradoxically, the other tweak sub-optimised its function in this new domain. But together, these changes gave rise to fit plants with complex leaves.

    A small piece of DNA with a large effect on leaf shape.

  • A decade ago, agricultural scientists at the University of Illinois suggested a bold approach to improve the food supply: tinker with photosynthesis, the chemical reaction powering nearly all life on Earth.
    The idea was greeted skeptically in scientific circles and ignored by funding agencies. But one outfit with deep pockets, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, eventually paid attention, hoping the research might help alleviate global poverty.

    With an Eye on Hunger, Scientists See Promise in Genetic Tinkering of Plants.

    Next Up: The final chapter of the 2016 plant news retrospective.

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