19 September 2019

Publication Utrecht researchers in Science

Plant response to survive flooding still present in crops

Seedlings of rice respond to complete submergence. Photo Germain Pauluzzi.

Utrecht researchers discovered that several crops still have the genes required to survive flooding, but they seem to have lost the ability to activate these genes, like rice does. “With the floods increasing in frequency, it is important that we work towards understanding how our crops can become more resilient to flooding.”

Together with researchers from the University of California and Emory University, Utrecht researchers studied how crops respond when submerged to water. In Science (20 September) they describe how they studied a wild-growing tomato, a tomato used for farming, a plant similar to alfalfa, and rice. Currently rice is the only major food crop able to survive flooding. But the team discovered that the genes that are necessary for a submergence response are still present in other crops too. It turns out that they all share at least 68 families of genes in common that are activated in response to flooding, so called submergence up-regulated families (SURFs).

In our work we looked at the genes in root tips, the first responders to overabundance of water

The team looked at the way that DNA instructs a cell to create a submergence response in a level of unprecedented detail. “In our work we looked at the genes in root tips, the first responders to overabundance of water. We employed novel tools to paint an intricate picture of what happens to gene expression, to understand whether and how their genes were activated when covered with water or deprived of oxygen”, says shared first author Kaisa Kajala from Plant Ecophysiology group at Utrecht University.

Tomato research

“We discovered that the core submergence response is conserved from flooding tolerant rice to a dryland adapted wild tomato”, says Kajala, who took the tomato research for her account. “Rice puts up the strongest response, leading to flooding resilience. We found clues for how the rice employs this regulatory network to put up the such a strong response.”

This is the first time that a flooding response has been looked at in a way that was this comprehensive, across evolutionarily different species. “We hope to take advantage of what we learned about rice in order to help activate the genes in other plants that could help them survive waterlogging”, said study lead Julia Bailey-Serres, professor with a special appointment in the Plant Ecophysiology group.


Evolutionary flexibility in flooding response circuitry in angiosperms. Science, 20 september. Mauricio A. Reynoso, Kaisa Kajala*, Marko Bajic, Donnelly A. West, Germain Pauluzzi1, Andrew I. Yao, Kathryn Hatch, Kristina Zumstein, Margaret Woodhouse, Joel Rodriguez-Medina, Neelima Sinha, Siobhan M. Brady, Roger B. Deal, Julia Bailey-Serres* DOI: 10.1126/science.aax8862

* authors that are affilated with Utrecht University