Crops ‘steal’ genes from other species to accelerate evolution: Study

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April 24, 2021 5:10 PM

Grass crops are able to bend the rules of evolution by borrowing genes from their neighbours, giving them a competitive advantage, according to a new study.

The research team studied grasses, which include some of the most economically and ecologically important plants, such as wheat, maize, rice and barley.

Grass crops are able to bend the rules of evolution by borrowing genes from their neighbours, giving them a competitive advantage, according to a new study. The research, led by UK-based University of Sheffield, is the first to show that grasses can incorporate DNA from other species into their genomes through a process known as lateral gene transfer.

“The stolen genetic secrets give them an evolutionary advantage by allowing them to grow faster, bigger or stronger and adapt to new environments quicker. These findings could inform future work to create crops that are more resistant to the effects of climate change and help to tackle food security problems,” the university said in a release on Saturday.

The research team studied grasses, which include some of the most economically and ecologically important plants, such as wheat, maize, rice and barley. Dr Luke Dunning, senior author of the research from the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences at the University of Sheffield, said: Grasses are taking an evolutionary shortcut by borrowing genes from their neighbours…If we can determine how this process is happening it may allow us to naturally modify crops and make them more resistant to climate change.”

Lateral gene transfer can move genetic information across wider evolutionary distances, which means it can potentially have even bigger impacts, he said. Whilst only a relatively small proportion of genes are transferred between species, this process potentially allows grasses to cherry pick information from other species. This likely gives them huge advantages and may allow them to adapt to their surrounding environment quicker,” Dunning added.

The team’s next steps will be to determine the biological mechanism behind this phenomenon and to investigate whether this is an ongoing process in crops that contributes to the differences we observe between crop varieties.

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