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Unlocking pineapple’s genetic secrets

Engineering crops like wheat to use the pineapple’s method of photosynthesis could dramatically boost its drought tolerance

A special type of photosynthesis called CAM allows pineapples to grow on marginal land with up to 80 per cent less water than most food crops.

The pineapple, the tropical fruit enjoyed by people worldwide in slices, chunks, juice, upside-down cakes, piña coladas, glazed ham and pizza, is finally giving up its genetic secrets.

Scientists say they have sequenced the genome of the pineapple, learning about the genetic underpinning of the plant’s drought tolerance and special form of photosynthesis.

The genome provides a foundation for developing cultivated varieties that are improved for disease and insect resistance, quality, productivity and prolonged shelf life, said University of Illinois plant biologist Ray Ming.

Pineapples, domesticated about 6,000 years ago in what is now southwest Brazil and eastern Paraguay and currently grown in tropical and subtropical regions worldwide, are big business.

They are the second most important tropical fruit crop behind bananas, and are grown in more than 80 countries, with an annual value of more than $8 billion.

“The industrial production of pineapple in Hawaii a century ago made pineapple a popular fruit worldwide because of its extraordinary flavour and aroma,” Ming said.

Pineapples are the most economically important crop that use a type of photosynthesis called CAM, or crassulacean acid metabolism, that evolved in arid locales for high water-use efficiency. It is one of three types of photosynthesis and differs from the forms in the vast majority of plants. Most crop plants use a type of photosynthesis known as C3. Plants with CAM photosynthesis use 20 to 80 per cent less water than typical crop plants and can grow in arid, marginal lands unsuited for most crops.

Mindful of global climate change forecasts, the researchers said understanding the pineapple genome may help to engineer drought tolerance into other crops and even engineer C3 photosynthesis crops like rice and wheat to use CAM photosynthesis.

“As such, CAM photosynthesis applications could hold major significance for the entire food industry,” added plant molecular biologist Qingyi Yu of the Texas A&M AgriLife Research Center at Dallas.

Some of the pineapple’s photosynthesis genes are governed by its circadian clock genes, which enable plants to distinguish between day and night and adapt their metabolism accordingly.

Ming said this makes sense because CAM photosynthesis lets plants close pores in their leaves during daytime and open them at night, helping retain moisture.

The research appears in the journal Nature Genetics.

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