As farmers struggle with a shifting climate, a group of scientists are drilling down to the heart of the matter: crop genetics.

Climate change poses a variety of risks to agricultural produce, including starving crops of water and preventing them from growing in traditional regions. Recent research suggests America's Corn Belt could soon shift north, and many farmers are already experiencing oddly timed flowering seasons, pest onslaughts and arid fields.

Some scientists say the solution could lie in crops' DNA and are making “gene catalogs” to help farmers grow healthier produce that can withstand climate change.

“What we're doing is giving the breeders the toolkits they need to be able to put together different genes and strains, to make a strain that's suitable for their environment,” explained Mark Tester, a professor with the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia.

Different genetic strains of produce have different traits: Some are more likely to survive in dry conditions, for instance, while others are better at tolerating heat. And if the farming community could be provided with more accurate information about which strains are better suited to their weather and soil conditions, the scientists theorize, they can make better choices.

Tester and his colleagues recently compiled the complete DNA sequence — over 1.3 billion DNA building blocks — of quinoa. One of the biggest issues that quinoa farmers face is that the stalks, which are tall and slender, tend to fall over frequently. As extreme weather events become more common, the crop's structure might make it more vulnerable.

“It's a wonderful plant, but it has many traits that are very annoying — and one is that it's quite tall and has a lot of branches,” explained Tester. “One of the biggest impacts of climate change will be that extreme weather events will become windier and stormier, so if farmers could make their plants nice and short, they'd be less likely to fall down.”

Their catalog would also allow farmers to choose varieties of quinoa that are more tolerant to drought or allow for more fossil fuel efficiency. They could also pick strains that taste sweeter, said Robert van Loo, with the Wageningen University, who was also involved with the project.

“For example, we discovered mutations which ensure that certain quinoa varieties cannot produce bitter tasting saponins,” he said in a statement. “These 'sweet' varieties do not need to be polished to remove the bitter substances, saving some 15 to 20 per cent. With the new knowledge of quinoa DNA, we can quickly and easily select plants that do not produce bitter substances in the breeding process.”

Researchers with the MasAgro Biodiversidad-Seeds of Discovery initiative, a collaboration between the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) based in Mexico City and other research institutes and universities, recently adopted a similar approach to helping maize farmers. They identified 100 genes that influence the crop's ability to withstand different latitudes, elevations and flowering times.

“If you're a breeder coming to a gene bank and you want something that's drought-tolerant, there's often very little information to point you toward the land races that will be better for you,” explained Sarah Hearne, a molecular geneticist and the Seeds of Discovery maize lead with CIMMYT.

This is partly because there's a dearth of adequate information about the genes, and what information exists isn't always accessible. Hearne likens it to wandering through a supermarket, where all the cans and produce aren't labeled.

“What we're trying to do is add more labels to those cans so that we can better direct people toward relevant information,” she added. “It will give breeders a broader palette of genetic variations to select from.”

Currently, said Hearne, the researchers are focusing on genes that influence drought and heat tolerance and resilience to key diseases.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at