University of California Riverside researchers identified a gene that allows plants to sense heat. And the discovery could help plants survive global warming, which researchers warned could reduce crop yields by one-third by 2050.

Warmer temperatures signal plants that summer is on the way. And in response, plants anticipate less water and flower early. The plants then lack enough energy to produce more seeds, resulting in smaller crop yields.

Researcher warns smaller crop yields are problematic as researchers anticipate the world’s population increasing to 10 billion people.

“We need plants that can endure warmer temperatures, have a longer time to flower and a longer growth period,” Meng Chen, botany and plant sciences professor, said. “But, to be able to modify plants’ temperature responses, you first have to understand how they work. So, that’s why identifying this gene that enables heat response is so important.”

Chen and his colleagues published their work to uncover the heat-sensing gene in the journal Nature Communications. It’s the second gene they’ve identified that plays into temperature sensing.

The first gene, HEMERA, was identified two years ago. The researchers then experimented to find other temperature-sensing genes.

Plants can react to temperature changes of a few degrees. The experiment began with a mutant Arabidopsis plant entirely insensitive to temperature. Researchers then modified it to become reactive once again.

The twice-mutated plant’s examination revealed the new gene, RCB, whose products work closely with HEMERA to stabilize the heat-sensing function.

“If you knock out either gene, your plant is no longer sensitive to temperature,” Chen said.

The master gene regulators require HEMERA and RCB, which contribute to the process responsible for reacting to temperature and light and turning plants green. The proteins get distributed to two parts of plant cells — the nucleus and organelles called chloroplasts.

Chen said his lab would focus on understanding how these two parts of the cell communicate and work together to achieve growth, greening, flowering and other functions going forward. He said the goal is to have the ability to modify temperature responses to ensure the future of our food supply.

“We were excited to find this second gene,” Chen said. “It’s a new piece of the puzzle. Once we understand how it all works, we can modify it and help crops cope better with climate change.”

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