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Wild peaches are genetically equipped to handle climate stress

In a new study led by the Boyce Thompson Institute, scientists have identified genes that could help domesticated peaches become more resistant to the pressures associated with climate change. 

“Our study provides many candidate genes, showing how the peach has adapted to all kinds of environmental stresses and stimuli,” said study co-lead author Professor Zhangjun Fei.

“Breeders can use this information to develop more resilient domesticated peach trees that cope better with temperature extremes, drought and other harsh, changing conditions imposed by climate change.”

The researchers analyzed DNA sequences in wild peaches that have adapted over a long time to specific local conditions across seven different regions in China. The experts identified genes that provide tolerance to extreme conditions, such as drought and ultraviolet radiation.

There is an urgent need to make food crops more resistant to climate change, which is causing many plants to become less productive.

While many studies have identified genes that enable rice and other food crops to adapt to climate stress, few studies have been focused on major fruit crops. The domesticated peach, Prunus persica, has a global yield of 24.5 million tons per year.

According to the researchers, many of domesticated peach’s adaptation genes have been lost as humans bred the plant to focus on traits such as flavor. Wild varieties contain the genetic diversity that is needed to make domesticated peaches more resilient. 

The study was focused on 263 types of wild peaches and landraces, including 218 from the National Peach Germplasm Repository of China and 45 from the Tibetan Plateau. Overall, the team identified more than 2,700 areas of the genome that are linked to 51 local climate factors.

For example, peaches from a region with extremely low winter temperatures had a genetic variant that provides resistance to cold. Wild peaches from a very arid region were found to have multiple genetic variants that regulate their response to drought.

“When a fruiting plant like peach is growing under a stressful condition like drought, its fruit gets sweeter,” said Professor Fei. “In this study, we have found the direct genetic link between drought and the sugar content of peach.”

Among peach trees from the Tibetan Plateau, the team identified a variant that protects the fruit from the intense UV-B radiation that is found in high altitudes.

“Overall, the genetic information we found could help people breed peach trees that grow in many different and harsh environments, expanding peach’s geographic range to new regions,” said Professor Fei.

“Breeders could develop cultivars that thrive on otherwise unused land, bolstering the local economy and bringing more good food to local markets.”

The study is published in the journal Genome Research.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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