Moss holds the key to crops surviving droughts

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Scientists from the University of Leeds, with colleagues from Germany, Japan and the US, have unravelled the genome for Physcomitrella, the first non-flowering or 'lower' plant to be sequenced. The group have published their findings in the journal Science. Researchers will now be able to study the moss’s DNA to identify which genes enable the plant to survive environmental stress. They then intend to help food crops to do the same.

The study of Physcomitrella began at the University of Leeds over 20 years ago with work by Prof. David Cove. Dr Andy Cuming has continued Prof. Cove’s work, and is part of the international team working on the genome. 'Physcomitrella is a really useful plant to study,' explains Dr Cuming. 'In addition to being the link between water-based algae and land plants, it also has many important characteristics which make it special. By sequencing the genome, we can start to identify their genetic basis and use the knowledge for crop improvement.'

Physcomitrella possesses a single 'haploid' genome, rather than a double genome from male and female parents, making it easier to discover which characteristics link to which gene. The plant can also integrate new DNA into a defined target in the genome, compared with most other plants, which integrate the new DNA randomly. The result is that any modification to the moss genome is far more controlled than with other plants. This enables it to be adapted as a 'green factory' for producing pharmaceutical products.

Dr Cuming said: 'If we can discover what mechanisms cause the Physcomitrella genome to integrate DNA in this way, we may be able to transfer those to other plants, to allow more controlled modification of their genomes. However, we also believe many of the useful genes in Physcomitrella are probably still present in 'higher' crop plants, but are no longer active in the same way. So rather than adding new DNA, we’ll just be activating what’s already there to create the properties we want.' He stressed the fact that in order to understand the human genome, scientists use the DNA of fruit flies, nematode worms and mice, to name only a few. 'We need that range in plant sciences too and Physcomitrella patens is a fantastic one to add to the list,' Dr Cuming underlined.

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