Plants can adapt to environmental changes through changes in their DNA sequence. Spontaneous changes can arise after random breaks in a plant’s DNA are triggered by various environmental signals, for example by solar radiation or by a plant’s own stress-induced small molecules. The subsequent DNA repair process can then cause a mutation. Spontaneous mutation is a fundamental biological process essential for the survival and evolution of plants. These spontaneous mutations are not directed to particular genes, and while most will be neutral – or not result in improvements – and some will be adverse for the plant, others will be beneficial. Researchers search for and select plants with beneficial mutations in order to make, for example, varieties retaining yield under drought conditions or with resistance to a disease or pest. This process is called plant breeding and it is a process in which breeders select random events that create beneficial mutations. The chance of finding a beneficial mutation can be increased by using genetic markers (DNA segments known to be associated with a desired characteristic) or by artificially inducing mutations through chemical agents or radiation. These traditional breeding approaches are resource-consuming and are not efficient.
Environmental conditions are ever-changing and as plants evolve, pests and diseases evolve too, producing new resilient pests that continue to plague plants. As a result, there are many diseases and pests that plants cannot be completely protected against, even with today’s breeding technologies. Drought, heat stress and soil nitrogen insufficiency are just a few examples of adverse environmental conditions that crops can be exposed to during their growing seasons. These problems are widespread in certain crops and geographies worldwide. Earth has also become increasingly urbanized, with global warming, reduced farmland availability, increased population, food crises in underdeveloped countries and consumer demands for more nutritious, high quality food. These pressures pose serious challenges that need to be addressed through improved crop breeding for future generations.