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Plants and crops are vulnerable to two related threats: climate change and the rapid spread of insects due to warming temperatures. This is bad news for plants, humans, and the environment. The good news, however, is that plant scientists are working on promising solutions – thanks to gene editing.

A new piece from The Conversation describes the ways in which plants battle critters and climate change.

“A study by researchers in 2018 predicted that each degree of global warming will increase crop loss from insects by 10% to 25% because insect populations and their appetites surge in warm temperatures. Other climate-related variables, including prolonged droughts or floods, are likely to compound those losses,” writes researchers Gregg Howe and Nathan Havko.

Howe and Havko studied a tomato plant and the caterpillars that are drawn to them. When the researchers tested the plant against either heat or insects, the plants were able to survive. The trouble came when the researchers compounded both variables.

When plants had to release natural toxins to fight off the prey, they could not engage in their self-cooling practices such as lifting their leaves to catch a breeze or releasing “plant sweat” actually called “stomata.” Thus, the plants were succumbing to heat and insect stress.

This spells terrible news for plant species, but worse news for us. As plants die rapidly due to climate change, humans and larger animals who rely on those crops will also go hungry.

 

Even a small swarm of the insects can consume enough food for 35,000 people in a single day.

Jens Laerke,
UN Humanitarian Office, Geneva

This is evidenced by the recent locust swarms sweeping Eastern Africa killing crops and inducing famine. Climate scientists have attributed this recent development to the “changing climate.” Jens Laerke of the UN’s humanitarian office in Geneva told The Guardian, “Even a small swarm of the insects can consume enough food for 35,000 people in a single day.”

Researchers are using gene editing to limit the threat to crops.

On the one hand, scientists are developing gene edited insects. These insects will be integrated with their wild counterparts, eventually creating a suppressed population which would protect crops from the ravaging quantities.

On the other hand, scientists are also developing gene edited plants. Small changes to a plant’s DNA can help it to be more resilient in all environmental stressors including heat and drought.

With gene editing science well underway, we can save our crops, and us.

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