Still, many relevant crop species are closely related to Arabidopsis, including broccoli and brussels sprouts. And because the salicylic acid pathway is present in many different kinds of plants, including major crops like wheat, corn, and potatoes, it’s possible the work could have an impact far beyond the lab. 

In a few follow-up experiments, the Duke group worked to repeat their results in rapeseed plants, a variety of which is used to make canola oil. The results were promising, although the work still needs to be tested in field trials, He says.  

One hold-up in getting the genetically modified crops into the field could be that the researchers used bacteria to deliver new DNA into the plant, meaning they would be considered GMOs (genetically modified organisms). But He says that future research could use gene-editing tools like CRISPR instead of introducing DNA from another organism, potentially avoiding some of the regulatory and consumer challenges associated with GMO foods.

Other experts are quick to point out that while research might be moving forward, we haven’t got plants totally figured out just yet.

“There are many more questions that are more fundamental,” says Jian Hua, a plant biologist at Cornell University. For example, she says, it’s not clear why this immune pathway shuts down at high temperatures in the first place.

Immune slowdowns at high temperatures could be an evolutionary quirk, but it’s also possible there is some benefit to switching off certain defenses as temperatures change, Hua points out. Some plants have other immune responses that actually ramp up when temperatures rise, and it’s not clear what the relative importance of these different pathways might be or how they might interact.

Rising temperatures brought on by climate change will affect plants in many ways beyond immunity, but if researchers could find new ways to help plants defend themselves, it could ultimately mean less pesticide use and a more resilient global food supply.

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