Plant Stress Biology and Molecular Genetics Research Programme

Designing and helping plants to better adapt to climate change

Designing and helping plants to better adapt to climate change

Research Focus

Plant Stress Biology and Molecular Genetics is a project under the guidance of the Director of NIFS, Professor Saman Seneweera. The aim of this research group is to gain a comprehensive understanding of the mechanisms of climate stress tolerance in plants in making informed decisions to improve the stress tolerance levels of plants.

Our research focusses on two main areas:(1) improving photosynthesis and yield gap in rice; (2) zinc and iron biofortification of rice and the minimization of toxic element accumulation. 

One of our research projects aims to improve rice yield gap by manipulating photosynthesis. To be fully confident of avoiding massive starvation in the future, a 50% increase in rice yields is required by 2050. Our objective is to increase rice yield, possibly by fine tuning the plant’s biology to fit in with the environment. Among the key traits, lower photosynthesis rates are recognized as a major bottleneck for yield improvement and genetic manipulation of photosynthesis is the most plausible method to increase yield potential. In our research group, we focus on four strategies to increase the CO2 concentration around Rubisco; (1) improving CO2 diffusion into the chloroplast and its site of fixation; (2) introducing C4 like characteristics into C3 Plants (3) introduction of cyanobacteria rubisco (4) transfer of C4 genes from the panicle to the shoot through CRISPR CAS9.

Zinc and Iron biofortification of rice is another area of research. In our large germplasm screening studies, using inherent heterogeneity among 295 accessions of Sri Lankan rice, we identified five lines with high concentrations of [Zn] and [Fe], contemporaneous with low concentrations of [As], [Cd] and [Pb]. For the lines identified, yield relationships with grain [Zn] and/or [Fe]; and/or low concentrations of [As], [Cd] and [Pb], were not significant, indicating that Zn and Fe biofortification targets could be achieved without compromising yield. These results indicate that sufficient genetic diversification exists to select rice lines among regional landraces that can both increase essential micronutrients while limiting exposure to known heavy metals.

Why does this matter ?

Climate change together with biotic and abiotic stresses in plants threaten global food production. Plant stress tolerance is a complex phenomenon involving multiple gene products which interact in complex ways to facilitate stress tolerance from subcellular to the whole plant level. A fundamental understanding of these responses is essential to develop high yielding crops with climate insensitivity.

Recently, dietary deficiencies of protein, Zn, Fe have been identified as a substantial global health problem exacerbated by climate change. An estimated two billion people around the world suffer from these deficiencies. Furthermore, a large degree of micronutrient malnutrition has been recognised in Sri Lanka and is associated with a number of metabolic diseases. These diseases can only be avoided by improving the nutrient status of cereals and pulses grown in our country.