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Grass crops steal genes from their neighbors to evolve faster

Grass crops steal genes from their neighbors to gain a competitive advantage, according to a new study from the University of Sheffield. The research is the first to show that grasses can incorporate DNA from other species into their genomes through lateral gene transfer.

The stolen genes help the grass crops to speed up their own evolution by growing faster or stronger, or by adjusting to their surroundings faster. The findings could ultimately lead to the development of crops that are more resistant to the effects of climate change.

“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,” said study first author Samuel Hibdige.

“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.”

The experts studied grasses that include some of the world’s most cultivated crops – wheat, maize, rice, and barley.

“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,” said study senior author Dr. Luke Dunning.

“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 hybridization, 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.”

The study is published in the journal New Phytologist.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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