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Of the major food crops, only rice is currently able to survive flooding. Thanks to new research, that could soon change—good news for regions of the world where rains are increasing in both frequency and intensity. The research, published in Science, studied how other crops compare to rice when submerged in water. It found that the plants—a wild-growing tomato, a tomato used for farming, and a plant similar to alfalfa—all share at least 68 families of genes in common that are activated in response to flooding.

Rice was domesticated from wild species that grew in tropical regions, where it adapted to endure monsoons and waterlogging. Some of the genes involved in that adaptation exist in the other plants but have not evolved to switch on when the roots are being flooded.

In the study, the team examined cells that reside at the tips of roots of the plant, as roots are the first responders to a flood. Root tips and shoot buds are also where a plant’s prime growing potential resides. These regions contain cells that can help a plant become more resilient to flooding. Drilling down even further, the team looked at the genes in these root tip cells to understand whether and how their genes were activated when covered with water and deprived of oxygen.

The genes involved in flooding adaptations are called submergence up-regulated families (SURFs). The researchers found that the plants had 68 SURFS in common with rice, which was surprising given that 180 million years of evolution has taken place.

While UC Riverside researchers conducted flooding experiments and analysis of rice plant genomes, scientists at Davis did the same with the tomato species while the alfalfa-type plant work was done at Emory.

Though the SURFs were activated in all the plants during the flooding experiments, their genetic responses weren’t as effective as in rice. The wild tomato species that grows in desert soil withered and died when flooded.

Climate change also produces periods of excessive drought, and separate efforts are under way to examine crop resilience to those conditions as well. However, Bailey-Serres said flooding responses are understudied compared to drought, making this work even more important.

The group is now planning additional studies to improve the survival rates of the plants that currently die and rot from excess water.

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