It’s not easy to live in Chile’s inhospitable Atacama desert: a harsh, unfriendly environment known for being the world’s driest non-polar desert. Despite the odds, life persists in these arid badlands, which have an agricultural history dating back thousands of years.
Identifying the processes underlying these improbable accomplishments is a mission that is more vital today than possibly ever before since it could disclose the secrets of growing food in a world that is increasing hotter and drier with each passing year.
In recent research, scientists have found the genetic underpinnings of a range of adaptations that allow plant life to flourish even in the severe conditions of the Atacama desert.
According to plant systems scientist Gloria Coruzzi of New York University, it is vital in an era of accelerating climate change to find the genetic foundation for improving crop productivity and resilience under dry and nutrient-poor circumstances.
Over ten years, Coruzzi and an international team of researchers studied Atacama plant life in 22 different locations across the desert terrain, both in situ and off-site, ferrying plant and soil samples were sent back to the lab, by freezing into liquid nitrogen to protect them for genome study.
In total, the transcriptomes of 32 of the desert’s most dominating plants were sequenced, and the results were compared to the transcriptomes of 32 closely similar species from other sites, none of which exhibited genetic adaptations to the Atacama Desert.
Coruzzi explains that the purpose was to utilize this evolutionary tree based on genome sequences to detect variations in amino acid sequences encoded in genes that enable the development of the Atacama plant’s adaption to arid environments.
The comparative approach is an example of what is known as phylogenomics has produced 265 positively selected genes, implying that they linked with mutations that may give benefits in the Atacama desert.
According to the researchers, 59 of these genes have been related to physiological and molecular mechanisms that might promote plant resilience under harsh environmental circumstances in Arabidopsis, one of the most studied model organisms in plant biology.
In other words, these positively selected genes in Atacama desert plants are already known to allow Arabidopsis to tolerate high UV and temperature stress, control floral growth and blooming time, aid in disease defense, and aid in water and nutrient intake.
That almost sounds like an evolutionary toolkit for how to survive as a plant in one of the most hostile environments on the planet, and the good news is that some of the same genetics can be found in food crop species as well, which means we might have a better idea of what crops to plant whereas the world warms, as well as how to breed, tweak, and future-proof them.
According to senior author and plant systems biologist Rodrigo Gutiérrez of the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, the research is directly relevant to regions around the world that are becoming drier, due to drought, extreme temperatures, and salt in water and soil being a significant threat to global food production.
Because several Atacama plants are closely related to staple crops like grains, beans, and potatoes, the candidate genes we discovered promise a genetic goldmine for engineering more robust crops, which is critical given our planet’s increasing desertification.