University of Maryland researchers discovered two genetic pathways responsible for variations in the structure of strawberry leaves, which could provide insight on how to make crops more resilient to the effects of climate change.

Researchers from the Molecular Mechanisms of Flower and Fruit Development Lab at this university studied how strawberry plants control the shape of their leaves. Their study, which was published in January, could have implications for scientists looking to breed crops that are more resistant to harsher climates, according to Xi Luo, a postdoctoral researcher at this university.

“Our work can really contribute to crop traits improvement in the future,” Luo said. “Understanding these leaf regulatory mechanisms and applying those knowledges to breeding in the future can have very big meanings because it can help those crops in the future to adapt to more extreme temperatures.”

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The researchers discovered the genes that control leaf margin feature and leaf complexity. Leaf margin feature is the shape of a leaf’s edge, such as whether it is serrated or smooth. Leaf complexity is how a leaf’s blade is divided. Simple leaves, like apple leaves, have only one blade, while compound leaves, such as maple leaves, have multiple blades, Luo said.

According to assistant research scientist Lei Guo, the researchers used CRISPR — a technology used to create gene mutations — to intentionally manipulate the margin feature gene and create leaves with more serrated edges.

Because researchers could locate the exact genetic pathways that dictate leaf development, they can target those pathways at specific stages of development to create a leaf with their desired structure. Modifying a leaf’s structure can allow scientists to breed crops that are more climate-resistant, Luo explained.
There has been previous research regarding the shape regulation of leaves, but this university’s researchers were the first to find the relationship between the two genes, Luo said. Through their work, the researchers discovered that the pathways responsible for margin features and leaf complexity work independently at various stages to control different aspects of how leaves grow.

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“We can apply this knowledge to rationally change the morphology to adapt to the new environmental challenges,” Guo said.

According to agricultural and natural resources associate professor Stephanie Yarwood, weather conditions and environmental challenges such as diseases affect many food sources and crops.

Severe changes in weather patterns can affect the growth of grain crops such as wheat and corn, and create pest infestations that impact vegetable growth, Yarwood said. Research on climate-resistant agriculture is important to anticipate and combat these issues, she added.

“People should know that this happens, that climate change is affecting agriculture,” Yarwood said. “In order to feed a growing population, we have to figure out, how do we do that when we might have increased losses due to climate change?”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misspelled Xi Luo’s name. This story has been updated.