This Plant Genetics Discovery May Protect Our Food Supply From Climate Change

Barbara McClintock’s revolutionary work changed our understanding of genomes, helping to lay the groundwork for the planet’s new reality.

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Mar 24, 2015· 1 MIN READ

Climate change is happening, and agriculture needs to evolve to keep up with rising temperatures. That’s why scientists around the world are attempting to grow crops that can hold up to a new environment. Leveraging the findings of Barbara McClintock might be one part of the answer.

When McClintock started sharing her research about the behavior of corn genes in the 1940s, the scientific community wasn’t sure what to make of her data. The research suggested that instead of DNA having fixed genes, there was a lot of moving around going on with certain genes called transposons, or “jumping genes.” It would take several decades and new technology to dig deeper into her research, but the scientific community eventually caught up to McClintock’s understanding. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1983, making her the first American woman to win it on her own. McClintock’s discovery benefits scientists today as they look for new ways to create crops that can tolerate a shifting climate.

According to Jorge Dubcovsky, a professor in the department of plant sciences at the University of California, Davis, “[McClintock] discovered retroelements,” one form of transposons, “[which] generate a great amount of diversity in wheat. That diversity is essential for adaptation in general, so [it] will help us in breeding for climate change.” As Dubcovsky and his colleagues combine various strains of wheat to select for traits that will help the plants survive in a changing climate, it is the transposons, the part of the genome that McClintock discovered, that are creating the new options for crops.

Why make heartier wheat to withstand a changing climate? Because the world eats tons of it—wheat comprises about one-fifth of the calories humans consume.

It took a while for McClintock’s work to be understood. At first, many of her colleagues reacted with outright disbelief. McClintock recalled that her work was met with “puzzlement, even hostility.”

“They thought I was absolutely mad,” she said while accepting the Nobel Prize.

But the naysayers didn’t stop McClintock from doing further research. “It didn’t bother me, I just knew I was right. Anybody who had had that evidence thrown at them with such abandon couldn’t help but come to the conclusions I did about it,” she said.

Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, transposons were further misunderstood; scientists dubbed them “junk genes”—a remnant of evolution that had no consequence. But steadily, researchers were amassing data that showed that, on the contrary, transposons may be directly related to evolution—including our own, as was posited in 2008.

McClintock died in 1992. Her colleagues remember her unyielding imagination. Indeed, McClintock saw wild potential hidden in genetics: “With the tools and the knowledge, I could turn a developing snail’s egg into an elephant…. It is a matter of timing the action of genes,” she said.

This piece is part of our six-part series “Woman Scientist All-Stars,” presented with the film Interstellar. We are remembering women scientists who have helped to shape our world and who still inspire us to reach for the stars.