Researchers from the University of Cambridge's Sainsbury Laboratory (SLCU) and Department of Plant Sciences have discovered that drought stress can trigger the activity of a family of jumping genes (Rider retrotransposons) previously known to contribute to fruit shape and color in tomatoes. Their research revealed that the Rider family is also present and active in other plants such as rapeseed, beetroot, and quinoa.
Transposons, or jumping genes, are mobile snippets of DNA code that copy themselves into new positions within the genome. Discovered by Nobel prize-winning scientist Barbara McClintock in the 1940s, only now are scientists realizing that transposons are not junk at all but actually play an important role in the evolutionary process, and in altering gene expression and the physical characteristics of plants.
This discovery brings a new potential source of new trait variations that could help plants better cope with more extreme conditions brought by changing climate. By identifying that Rider activity is triggered by drought suggests that it can create new gene regulatory networks that would help a plant respond to drought. This also means that Rider could help develop crops that are better adapted to drought stress by providing them with drought responsiveness genes from other crops.