How is the "genetic gold mine" that makes life possible in the Atacama desert, the driest on the planet



The characteristics of the Atacama desert, in Chile, play against life.

After the poles, is the place more dry of the planet. In addition to the scarcity of water, the soil has few nutrients, sunlight produces extremely high radiation and much of its territory is above 2,500 meters above sea level.

Even so, dozens of species of plants, herbs and shrubs manage to survive in this hostile region.

And how do they do it? According to experts, the answer to this question is key to finding solutions to the challenges that the humanity.



Life in the Atacama Desert develops under extreme conditions.

Understanding these adaptive mechanisms can provide valuable clues to produce crops that are capable of living in areas where there is a shortage of food for people or in areas that are becoming more desert due to weathering. climate change.

Now, a group of researchers say they have found a number of genetic strategies that explain the resistance and adaptability of the Atacama plants.

What did this find consist of whose authors compare with having found a gold mine?



Climate change is creating increasingly arid regions.

Genetics and evolution

For ten years, a team of botanists, microbiologists, ecologists and experts in genomics and evolution, analyzed the climate, temperature, soil and vegetation in 22 zones with different altitudes within the Atacama.

Then, they took samples of the soil and 32 species of plants to analyze their genetic sequences at the laboratory.


Melissa Aguilar

The researchers took samples from the plants to analyze their genetic sequence.

Most of these plants they had never been studied, according to Rodrigo Gutiérrez, co-author of the research and professor in the Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile.

As part of the analysis, Gutiérrez and his team compared the genome of the 32 species of the Atacama with other 32 genetically similar species, but that had not been subjected to the process of adaptation in the desert.

The goal was to rebuild the evolutionary history of the Atacama plants to identify the genetic changes that allowed them to adapt to extreme conditions.



Mutations and bacteria

The study yielded two great results.

The first was that they identified mutations in 265 genes present in various plants of the Atacama.

According to the researchers, these mutations may be the result of evolutionary processes that facilitate adaptation from plants to desert conditions.

Among these genes, for example, they found some that are related to the reaction to sunlight and photosynthesis, and that help plants to withstand the extreme radiation of the Atacama.



They also discovered genes related to the response of plants to stress and salt, as well as others involved in detoxification processes.

These genes, according to the authors, may be associated with the adaptation of plants to hostile conditions and poor nutrients of this region.

The second discovery was to find that some species of plants grow bacteria in the ground around its roots.

These bacteria optimize nitrogen absorption, a key nutrient for plant growth that is scarce in the Atacama.



Food safety

Some Atacama plants are closely related to essential crop types such as grains, legumes and potatoes.

For this reason, Gutiérrez describes his finding as a “genetic gold mine” that can be used to develop more resistant crops in areas affected by increasing desertification.

“Our study is relevant to regions that are becoming increasingly arid, with factors such as drought, extreme temperatures and salt in water and soil representing a threat significant for world food production, “says the researcher in a statement.


Melissa Aguilar

For her part, Gloria Coruzzi, a researcher at the Center for Genomics and Biological Systems at New York University and co-author of the study, considers that “in an era of a accelerated climate change uncovering the genetic basis for improving crop production and resilience under dry, nutrient-poor conditions is crucial. “

BBC Mundo consulted Elizabeth Weretilnyk, a professor at McMaster University, in Canada, and a specialist in the adaptation of plants to adverse ecosystems, who was not involved in the research.



The study may be useful in ensuring food security in various parts of the world.

For Weretilnyk, this study shows that it is possible “to accelerate the discovery of genes and adaptive traits that can guide efforts to improve crops they are less tolerant of stress. “

Weretilnyk also hopes that this study will inspire more research that seeks “a future with greater food security “.

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