Science 3 min read

Jumping Genes Could Help Crops Cope With Climate Stress

Commonly overlooked DNA sequences found in tomatoes known as jumping genes could help breed crops that are climate-resilient.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Transposable elements, commonly known as transposons or jumping genes, are bits of DNA that move freely around the genome from one location to another.

In the late 1940s, geneticist Barbara McClintock discovered jumping genes in maize, and since then they were dismissed as “junk” DNA that serves no particular purpose.

McClintock speculated back then that these genes could play a regulatory role in the expression of other genes. In 1969, scientists Roy Britten and Eric Davidson suggested that transposons help cells differentiate into types based on where they place themselves on the genome.

But the scientific community largely dismissed these early theories, and it took decades to understand the implications of jumping gene’s discovery.

Jumping Genes Aren’t Junk DNA!

First discovered in maize, jumping genes were then found in other organisms like bacteria and viruses, including humans.

Transposons are not only present but abundant, comprising the majority in the genome of some organisms, like maize (85%). Approximately 50% of the human genome is estimated to be made up of jumping genes.

If jumping genes are indeed “junk,” that’s a lot of genetic junk we’re carrying around!

The latest research efforts show these mobile genetic elements aren’t as useless as scientists previously thought.

In a new study published in the journal PLOS Genetics, researchers from the University of Cambridge found that drought stress triggers the activity of transposons.

Specifically, the team from Cambridge’s Sainsbury Laboratory (SLCU) and Department of Plant Sciences, characterized a family of jumping genes known as Rider retrotransposons in tomatoes.

Previously, Rider retrotransposons were known for their contribution to the shape and color of tomato fruits. The team showed these genes are also present in other plants, including some cash crops like quinoa, beetroot, and rapeseed.

Dr. Matthias Benoit, the paper’s first author, explains the implications of their findings:

“Identifying that Rider activity is triggered by drought suggests that it can create new gene regulatory networks that would help a plant respond to drought. This means we could harness Rider to breed crops that are better adapted to drought stress by providing drought responsiveness to genes already present in crops. This is particularly significant in times of global warming, where there is an urgent need to breed more resilient crops.”

According to researchers, the abundance of jumping genes is encouraging for further investigation. They want to develop ways to control Rider elements activation, reactivation, or re-introduction into plants.

Rider retrotransposons, through their trait diversification potential, could help speed-breed crops.

This study highlights the potential role that jumping genes can play to help crop plants cope better with extreme weather conditions, which climate change is making even worse.

Read More: Plant-Fungal Symbiosis and Climate-Resistant Crops

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Zayan Guedim

Trilingual poet, investigative journalist, and novelist. Zed loves tackling the big existential questions and all-things quantum.

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