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Study Reveals Grasses Stealing Genes from Their Neighbors!

Scientists discover grass crops stealing genes from neighboring crops for better competitive advantage.

Shipra Singh

The latest study reveals that grass crops are bending the rules of evolution. They are borrowing genes from their neighboring crops, thus, gaining a competitive advantage.

A research by the University of Sheffield in South Yorkshire, England, shows that grasses have gained the ability to incorporate DNA from other crop species into their genomes through a process called lateral gene transfer.

These "stolen" genes, as scientists put it, give the grass an evolutionary advantage. It makes them stronger, bigger, and exhibit faster growth, plus they adapt better to new environments.

So, the question is: how this discovery will help agricultural scientists and crop growers?

Well, this discovery will assist scientists to develop and encourage crop growers to grow crops that show higher resistance to effects of climate change and aid in tackling problems of food security.

The team of scientists studied grasses, including some of the most ecologically and economically crucial plants, like the most cultivated crops globally - maize, wheat, barley, and rice.

Here are a few comments from researchers:

Senior author of the research, Luke Dunning, from the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, University of Sheffield, said, “Grasses are taking an evolutionary shortcut by borrowing genes from their neighbors. By using genetic detective work to trace the origin of each gene, we found over 100 examples where the gene had a significantly different history to the species it was found in.

“The findings may make us as a society reconsider how we view GM technology, as grasses have naturally exploited a very similar process. 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.

“What we are seeing is not hybridisation, but the consequences are similar. Lateral gene transfer can move genetic information across wider evolutionary distances, which means it can potentially have even bigger impacts.

“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.

First author of the research, Samuel Hibdige, who is also the PhD researcher from the University of Sheffield, said, “We still don’t know how this is happening or what the full implications are. But, we know it is widespread in grasses, a family of plants that provide a majority of the food we eat.

“We detected foreign DNA in a wide range of grasses with all kinds of life history strategies indicating it is not restricted to those with a specific trait. However, we did detect a statistical increase in species which possess certain kinds of modified stems called rhizomes.”

(Source of quotes: Seed World)

As per Darwin's Theory of Evolution, genetic information passes from parents to offspring and this is how, with time, evolution happens in the animal and plant kingdom. However, plants taking genes from neighbors is a recently discovered phenomenon, although it may be happening for long.

The team of researchers plan to find out the biological mechanism responsible for this phenomenon. They are also interested in finding out whether this has been an ongoing process in crops and whether this is what gives different crop varieties.

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