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A mathematical model predicts the response of plants to climate change

A collaborative work identifies a protein to be key in response to high environmental temperatures.
Image of Arabidopsis seedlings growing under in vitro culture conditions. Credit: Cristina Nieto/CNB-CSIC
Image of Arabidopsis seedlings growing under in vitro culture conditions. Credit: Cristina Nieto/CNB-CSIC

A research led by CSIC scientists has resulted in a mathematical model based on temperature-regulated processes which is able to predict the response of crops to global warming. This research, published in the journal Science Advances, has identified the fundamental role of the COP1 protein as a growth promoter of Arabidopsis plants in long days and high environmental temperatures and its interaction with other cellular factors. This discovery could help avoid the adverse effects of climate change on summer crops.

The research is the result of a collaboration between the groups led by Salomé Prat, CSIC researcher now at CRAG, Saúl Ares, researcher at the National Center for Biotechnology (CNB-CSIC) and Pablo Catalán, researcher at the Interdisciplinary Group of Complex Systems (GISC) of the Carlos III University of Madrid. The data obtained in the study have been used to develop a mathematical model that associates the active levels of cellular factors regulated by light and temperature with the growth of the embryonic stem (the hypocotyl).

Salomé Prat points out that the importance of this work goes beyond the characterization of the molecular bases of thermomorphogenesis. «Cultivated species show a very low genetic variability in terms of their ability to adapt to high environmental temperatures, which decrease their production. Here we show that more active forms of COP1 improve the tolerance to climate change of crops that require long days», indicates the researcher.

Mathematics for summer crops

Plants adapt their development and morphology to the environmental conditions that surround them, fundamentally the duration of the day and the ambient temperature. These two factors directly affect crop yields, hence the interest of the scientific community in their study.

When detecting an increase in temperature, the first response of the plant is the elongation of the hypocotyl, to facilitate the cooling of the leaves and minimize the damage caused by heat. «By growing several mutant lines of Arabidopsis under various conditions of light and temperature, we were able to adjust the parameters of the equations with the experimental data of hypocotyl length and one of the most interesting predictions of the model was that the maximum activity of COP1 occurs during the day and at high temperatures», explains Ares.

Temperature promotes plant growth and light inhibits it. In summer, when the days are longer and warmer, plants receive conflicting information and have to decide which signal to heed. «Until now, COP1 had been described as a fundamental factor for regulating growth in the dark, so this prediction was unusual», says Cristina Nieto, first author of the work and currently a researcher at the National Institute of Agricultural Research and Technology and Food (INIA-CSIC). «We decided to simulate hypocotyl growth for a range of COP1 activity values and experimentally verified the predictions obtained with mutants where COP1 did not work well or with plants that accumulated an excess of the protein. Thanks to this study, we now know that the COP1 protein is key to regulating the response to temperature on long days, that is, in summer».

The present work provides a unique tool to identify the best genetic combinations to optimize crops’ resilience to climate change.


Article of reference

Cristina Nieto, Pablo Catalán, Luis Miguel Luengo, Martina Legris, Vadir López-Salmerón, Jean Michel Davière, Jorge J. Casal, Saúl Ares*, Salomé Prat*. COP1 dynamics integrate conflicting seasonal light and thermal cues in the control of Arabidopsis elongation. Science Advances. 2022 August 19;8(33):eabp8412.

About the authors and the funding of the study

Research has been supported by Spanish MCIN/AEI/10.13039/501100011033/ and FEDER Una manera de hacer Europa (grant nos. PGC2018-098186-B-100 to Pablo Catalán., FIS2016-78313-P to Saúl Ares, and BIO2017-90056-R/PID2020-119758RB-I00 to Salomé Prat), besides grant BADS, no. PID2019-109320GB-100, to Saúl Ares and Pablo Catalán, and funding from University of Buenos Aires (grant no. 20020170100505BA to Jorge J. Casal), and Agencia Nacional de Promoción Científica y Tecnológica (grant no. PICT-2019-2019-01354 to Jorge J. Casal). The CNB and CRAG Institutes also received the “Severo Ochoa” Centers of Excellence SEV 2017-0712 (CNB) and CEX2019-000902-S (CRAG) awards from the Spanish Ministerio de Ciencia e Innovación.