Tuesday, January 21, 2020

First ‘lab in a field’ trial reveals sunnier side of climate change

December 23, 2019 by  
Filed under Crops

Scientists in Norfolk used heated field plots to investigate the link between warmer autumn weather and oilseed rape yields.

The field trial experiment was the first of its kind in the UK. Conducted by researchers at the John Innes Centre, Norwich, it found that warmer October temperatures lead to higher rape yields the following harvest.

The crop was planted in autumn and harvested early the following summer. It is known that warmer temperatures in October are correlated with higher oilseed rape yields – but the reason for this trend was unclear.

Rape is particularly sensitive to temperature at certain times of the year with annual yields varying by up to 30% as a result. Results of the study revealed that October temperatures are surprisingly important for the timing of flowering – and hence yield.

Study author Steve Penfield said: “Oilseed rape plants stop growing when they go through the floral transition at the end of October, and warmer temperatures at this time of year enable the plant to grow for longer, giving more potential for higher yields.”

“By establishing the link between autumn temperatures and yield, our study highlights an example of climate change being potentially useful to farmers. Cold Octobers have a negative effect on yield if you are growing oilseed rape, and these are now rarer.”

Temperature is critical for oilseed rape lifecycle because it determines at what point the plant goes through the transition from vegetative state to flowering – with delays in flowering being associated with higher yields, said Professor Penfield.

This vernalisation process is well understood in the lab as a requirement of a prolonged exposure to cold temperature. But an increasing body of research suggests vernalisation might work differently under more variable conditions experienced by a plant in the field.

In this study, the team used soil surface warming cables to raise the temperature of field plots by 4-8ºC, simulating warmer October temperatures. Two varieties of oilseed rape with differing vernalisation requirements were trialled.

Lab tests on dissected plants showed that warming in October conditions delayed floral transition by three to four weeks for both varieties. Genetic tests showed genes associated with vernalisation in cold conditions were also highly expressed in the warm conditions.

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