Could the next step in sustainable agriculture be the invention of immortal crops?
For years, scientists working in clandestine labs have been combing through the genomes of plants and animals that do not seem to age. Take the lobster, for example, which can only die from disease or attack. Getting older does not increase a lobster’s chances of dying.
Last month, Dutch researchers identified a gene - called AHL15 - that brings flowering plants ‘back to life’ in the spring.
“Plants have growing points on their stems. These are groups of stem cells that can form new stems with leaves or flower,” explains lead study author Remko Offringa, a professor at the Institute of Biology Leiden at Leiden University in the Netherlands.
“In perennial plants, a number of those growing points remain vegetative, so that after flowering the plant can continue to grow in the next season. In annual plants, this does not happen and the plant dies.”
The AHL15 gene determines whether those “growing points” will remain vegetative after flowering.
During the experiment, Offringa and his team manipulated the expression of the AHL15 gene in thale cress (arabidopsis), a small flowering plant related to cabbage and mustard.
When gene expression was increased, so did the plant’s growing activity. “The plants continue to grow after flowering and can blossom several times,” said Offringa of the modified plants.
Conversely, when gene expression was limited, the plants exhibited a much shorter lifespan.
“The discovery of the [AHL15] gene contributes to fundamental knowledge about plant life history and aging,” notes Offringa. “The gene may also provide an answer to the question of why, during evolution, certain species have become annuals and others have become perennial.”
Offringa’s discovery holds massive potential for farmers. If annual food crops like wheat and rice could be given the ability to regenerate, it would allow farmers to continue harvesting without replanting.
“This may allow for several harvests from the same crop and thus…increase the yield per plant.” Such a system would also help keep the soil environment intact and decrease the labor, time, and waste associated with farming.
And what if the AHL15 gene could be harnessed for humanity, so that “death” becomes nothing more than a period of dormancy followed by another season of life?
Offringa’s study was published April 2020 in the journal Nature Plants.