Scientists develop new 'climate-resistant' crops with the help of nuclear technology


New rice and green bean plants are being introduced so farmers can grow more of these staples despite rising temperatures due to climate change. These new “climate resilient” crop varieties were developed as part of a five-year project to help countries improve food security and adapt to changing climatic conditions. The project dealt specifically with improving the tolerance to high temperatures in drought-prone areas of rice and bean plants.

“Climate change is forcing food producers and farmers to approach agriculture from another perspective,” says María Caridad González Cepero, a scientist at the National Institute of Agricultural Sciences of Cuba. “There are new plant varieties, such as these “climate-resistant” rice and bean plants, that offer a sustainable option to adapt to some of the negative effects of climate change, which is important to ensure food security now and in the future. the future".

One of the main consequences of climate change has been the extreme fluctuation of temperatures on the planet. The increase in temperatures has a direct and detrimental effect on the development of plants and crops. In many agricultural areas of the planet, extreme temperatures are making plants suffer, particularly staple crops such as rice and green beans (“Phaseolus vulgaris”) that are essential to the diet of millions of people around the world.

To help protect agricultural food sources, a group of specialists in plant breeding, plant physiology, agronomy and plant biotechnology, and experts from the IAEA, in cooperation with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) ), came together to create new “climate resilient” crop varieties under a five-year coordinated IAEA research project.

The group began by studying the reaction of rice and green bean plants to normal and aberrational climatic conditions—that is, any climatic conditions to which a crop variety is not normally adapted—and by identifying the genes associated with tolerance. to heat and with greater performance. With that information, they set out to obtain plants that possessed the desired traits and bred with the goal of achieving them by irradiating the plants to speed up their natural mutation process. This breeding process increases the diversity of plant traits, allowing scientists to test and select plants with the desired traits in less time. The result was a series of “weather resistant” rice and green bean plants that can better tolerate high temperatures while offering higher yields than landraces.

One of these new varieties of rice, known as "Guillemar" and tolerant to drought, is already used in Cuba and has increased crop yields by 10%. Other countries, such as India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Tanzania and Senegal, are also preparing to put into circulation new high-yield rice varieties that adjust to the temperature conditions of each country, while experts from Colombia and Cuba have achieved satisfactory results with new, higher-yielding, heat-tolerant varieties of the common bean (“Phaseolus vulgaris”) and tepary bean (“Phaseuolus acutifolius A. Gray”) plants that they hope to make available to farmers on latest in 2020 or 2021.

More food, more knowledge

Developing new plant varieties can help farmers produce more food and adapt to climate change, but also scientists by allowing them to better understand how climate change affects plants and find ways to fine-tune and improve the breeding process. plant breeding.

In the course of this five-year project, the group developed methods to screen the physiological, genetic, and molecular components of plants and accurately assess the genetic makeup of plants in order to identify, select, and breed those with desired traits.

For example, a pre-screening technique in the field was perfected to help plant breeders speed up the evaluation of plant varieties under controlled conditions, such as in a greenhouse or growing room. This approach allows them to effectively restrict the number of potential plants to undergo new field trials from a few thousand to less than 100. By limiting the options, this technique can shorten the research and development period, from three to five years, down to just one year, meaning new plant varieties can reach farmers sooner to help them anticipate climate change and prevent food insecurity.

Many of the group's methods and techniques are now being made available to other scientists for further investigation. This is done through IAEA coordinated research projects and technical cooperation projects involving other groups of scientists, as well as through more than 40 publications, including a recently published open-access guide on pre-screening protocols. in the field of heat-tolerant mutant rice varieties.

“Climate change is one of the biggest challenges facing the planet, and the adaptation of crops to climate variations is essential to guarantee food and nutrition security,” says Fama Sarsu, IAEA scientist and official in charge of the project. “Interdisciplinary research involving plant breeders, physiologists and molecular biologists is essential to develop new varieties adapted to extreme environmental conditions, such as drought and high temperatures. Our collaborative research is a big step forward in achieving crop adaptation to climate change through the development of these rice and bean varieties."