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Moss May Help Feed The Hungry

By Bob Ewing     Dec 14, 2007 in Science
One of the simplest plants on the planet could help scientists create crops to survive the ravages of drought. The moss Physcomitrella patens is a primitive plant, similar to the first plants which began to grow on land around 450 million years ago.
Physcomitrella patens is a moss and one of the simplest plants on the earth but despite that research has shown that this primitive plant may help scientists create crops that are able to withstand the harsh conditions that accompany drought.
The mosses have the ability to survive severe dehydration and then regrow when watered. This ability could be of enormous use for crops grown in drought-stricken areas of the developing world.
A research team, from the University of Leeds working with researchers from Germany, Japan and the United States, have been able to sequence the genome for Physcomitrella – the first non-flowering or ‘lower’ plant to be sequenced.
This means that the scientists will be able to identify which genes control these survival tactics and adapt crops to do the same.
Professor David Cove began the study of this moss over 20 years ago. Dr Andy Cuming has continued Professor Cove’s work, supported by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, 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 possess a single ‘haploid’ genome rather than a double genome from male and female parents and this makes it easier to identify which characteristics link to which gene.
The moss has the ability to integrate new DNA into a defined target in the genome, unlike most plants which integrate new DNA randomly. What this means is that the modification of the moss genome is far more controlled than with other plants and allows the moss to be adapted as a ‘green factory’ to produce pharmaceutical products.
“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,” said Dr Cuming. “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.”
“Until now, only a handful of flowering plant genomes have been sequenced, compared with a large number of diverse animal genomes,” says Dr Cuming. “But knowledge of a range of genomes is really important for scientific study. To help in understanding 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.”
More about Moss, Drought, Hingry