Food, drink and medicine breakthrough seeded

Worldwide production of food, beverages and medicinal plants could become cheaper and more reliable using information from a germination breakthrough by La Trobe University and the University of Western Australia scientists.

Growers of seeds, such as of rice for food, barley for beer and poppies for codeine, would benefit greatly from having control over when they germinate. The research, published in Genome Biology, is starting to decipher how a crop’s genome can control the time that a seed wakes up. 

“Scientists and crop breeders have been interested in seed dormancy and germination for a very long time,” said La Trobe University’s Dr Mathew Lewsey.

“They breed carefully to control it in many crops because it affects their yields enormously.”

With the knowledge gained from this research, Dr Lewsey hopes to perfect the genome-editing technology necessary to produce new plant cultivars that germinate differently, giving farmers the ability to precisely control when their crops are ready for harvest.

“We want to be able to control when seeds wake up and how quickly they do it,” he said. 

Dr Quentin Gouil, also of La Trobe University’s Centre for AgriBioscience, said the boon for food security around the world would be incredible for staple foods such as rice, corn and wheat.

“The production of beer and spirits would also benefit from this level of control, along with medicines such as morphine and codeine,” said Dr Gouil.

“Farmers and brewers can produce higher quality products if they know exactly when their seeds will wake.”

Colleague Dr Reena Narsai, from the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology at La Trobe University, is excited about the opportunities that could arise from this research in coming years.

“Our next move is to transfer our findings from the model research plant Arabidopsis into crop plants such as barley and rice,” she said.

“New cultivars of plants that germinate as growers want would be permanently modified so that, when those plants are propagated, their seeds and the offspring from those would all have the new behaviour.

“We will look to generate varieties that have accelerated or slowed-down germination and will study how they control the genetic switches that turn this off and on.”

The study was conducted by researchers from the La Trobe University Department of Animal, Plant and Soil Sciences at the Centre for AgriBioscience, the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology and the University of Western Australia.

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