Canola oil is a common ingredient in prepackaged foods. You may even have a container of it in your cabinet right now. However, if a troubling climate change-induced trend continues, you may pay a much higher price the time you purchase the kitchen staple.
Heat waves can completely devastate canola crops — the canola seed pods literally disintegrate when exposed to long periods of heat. The seed crop then either falls to the ground on its own or is delivered from its weakened pod by a storm or wind.
In the wild, weakened seedpod walls after intense heat make sense as a survival tactic. The growing process is accelerated in the hopes that the seeds will be released before the heat kills the plant. However, seed crops are useless to farmers once they hit the ground.
“Farmers of canola worldwide lose about 15 to 20 percent on average of their yield because of this shatter phenomenon,” Lars Østergaard, a biologist at the John Innes Centre, told NPR. “I spoke with a farmer in Kent who lost more than 70 percent of his crop one year because he harvested on a day after a strong storm had come in.”
To get to the bottom of this issue, Østergaard and other researchers from the John Innes Centre decided to conduct an experiment, the results of which have been published in Molecular Plant.
The researchers grew canola and three other types of plants in isolated chambers at 17 degrees Celsius, 22 degrees Celsius, and 27 degrees Celsius (63 degrees Fahrenheit, 72 degrees Fahrenheit, and 81 degrees Fahrenheit, respectively). Next, they monitored the plants for signs of the Indehiscence (IND) gene, which they knew instructed the plants to open their seedpods.
The researchers discovered that the plant’s access to this gene increased along with the temperature. The hotter it got, the easier it was for the plant’s cells to carry out the gene’s instructions.
Now that the researchers know why heat affects canola plants the way that it does, they might be able to use that information to control the effect of heat on the IND gene, thereby controlling the plant’s reaction to it.
“If people are trying to breed crops for not shattering in heat waves, then they have a target gene to work with,” Johanna Schmitt, a plant biologist at the University of California, Davis, who did not work on the study, told NPR.
The researchers involved in the study believe other food crops might respond similarly to temperature changes. If they’re right, we’ll need to find ways to ensure other plants aren’t rendered unusable by rising temperatures, and taking a closer look at their genes just might be the best way to do that.