Tinkering with the genetic makeup of saffron to build climate resilience

  • Omics-based technologies, which aim to characterize the biological molecules that make up a structure or function in an organism, are being used to modify saffron genomics for climate resilience.
  • The impacts of climate change in the form of erratic rainfall and drought-like conditions affect the production of saffron in the Kashmir valley.
  • As a sterile species, saffron is not easy to breed, making it difficult to genetically modify it to create climate-resilient varieties.

Sheikh Mohammad Sultan, a saffron farmer in his 60s, is uncertain about the future of the saffron industry in the Kashmir valley. Sultan and his family, while picking saffron flowers, discover that the products have decreased in quantity. According to him, an area that produced 200 kg of saffron or Crocus sativa now it produces just 20 kg.

While there are various reasons for the decline in production, climate change is considered definitive. According to a study by AM Husaini of the Biotechnology Division of Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences & Technology (SKUAST), unpredictable rainfall interspersed with drought is a major cause of the decline.

Saffron grows in limited areas as a niche crop. It is easily vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, potentially endangering the livelihoods of thousands of farmers and traders.

A saffron flower under study fully bloomed and ready for picking. Photo by Amir Bin Rafi

To address the impacts of climate change on saffron production, especially the rainfall deficit, new saffron varieties are needed. Genetic variations or subtle changes in DNA (in saffron in this case) can help develop new saffron varieties. But saffron only reproduces vegetatively using corms or bulbs and cannot reproduce by generating new seeds (it is sterile). This sterility does not allow saffron to have genetic variations like those of corn or other plants. The saffron grown throughout the world is the same in terms of biological characteristics and varies slightly in size and shape depending on the environment.

According to Mehraj Ud Din, a senior scientist at SKUAST’s Advanced Research Station for Saffron and Seed Spices (ARSSSS), modifying the genetics of saffron is a challenge. Being a sterile crop, its induction of genetic variability (the variations in the characteristics from which the most desired can be chosen for growing improved varieties) is very low.

Read more: Saffron, biodiversity and glaciers: Kashmiri scientists lead climate action

A 2020 study found that a large corm weighing more than eight grams produces three to four small daughter corms, which take several seasons to reach the size and weight needed for flowering. Multiplication rates are extremely slow and production is further affected when corms rot or become infected with diseases caused by rodents and other sources, which contributes greatly to trade losses.

Mehraj Ud Din says that saffron’s inability to produce seeds is a major bottleneck in getting different variations (varieties). One can choose varieties in other main crops according to their needs. “We can crossbreed in the case of corn. There is natural variability in other crops. However, it’s not the same with saffron,” he said.

The saffron grown in the valley has some natural mutants which offer the possibility of tapping into these variations. Mutations are needed to obtain new climate-resistant saffron variants. “Different types of mutagens are used to induce variability,” says Mehraj Ud Din.

ARSSSS is collaborating with the Bhabha Atomic Research Center (BARC) in Mumbai and BARC Zakura in Kashmir, where material is taken and exposed to variable radiation and then returned to be implanted in the center (ARSSSS). However, the exercise is a trial and error experiment. “We test which material has a good recovery rate by administering different doses to the material. But we don’t know if we’re getting new mutants or if they just have a slight change.

The picture shows a row of potted trees
As part of a study, saffron is grown under different water conditions to test its resistance to water. Photo by Amir Bin Rafi.

Building climate resilience using omics

To develop climate resilience, numerous studies are underway on water adaptation and ideal temperatures for saffron. To understand the genetic variability among saffron landraces in the valley areas where it is grown, researchers are looking for differences in adaptation to differences in water availability.

“Currently, we are studying the water resilience of saffron by exposing it to different types of stresses to see how plant growth is affected,” said Mehraj Ud Din, who believes the unusual rainfall is the main reason for the decline in yield. “We believe there is natural genetic variability in saffron in Kashmir. We are looking at which genotypes (strains) perform well under stress. If the experiments produce any mutants, we study them in a controlled environment to see if they will work.” He believes this may provide an alternative to the disturbed precipitation pattern.

Mehraj Ud Din says, “If we perform a mutation, the role of the homicides will be a facilitator – to identify the factor that caused the mutation. It shows which region is affected, where it is found and how to exploit it if we opt for genetic transformation.” Omics refers to a field of study in the biological sciences that ends in -omics, such as genomics, transcriptomics, proteomics, or metabolomics. The ending -ome is used to address the objects of study of such fields, such as the genome, proteome, transcriptome or metabolome.

Read more: Genomics offers clues about how forest trees responded to the last ice age

However, he also says that homicides do not produce immediate results. “We would like to have a flower of around 10-20 stigmas. But it’s not in our hands. The basic biology of saffron does not allow for this.

The indoor cultivation of saffron is also being studied closely, particularly at the temperatures required for crop multiplication.

Asif M. Iqbal Qureshi, another ARSSSS scientist, says saffron farmers are excited to learn new ways to increase saffron yield. “To get a higher yield per unit area, we usually advise growers on saffron management, from the pre-production stage, where we tell them spacing, temperature, watering, to post-production, which includes advice on collection of flowers, drying of stigmas and packaging”.

He also adds that large-scale mutation is required to obtain more genotypes – climate-resilient saffron varieties. Large land samples and significant manpower are required to perform the experiments in order to obtain the desired results because it is not possible to predict which genotype is well suited to specific climatic conditions. Qureshi says expectations of getting mutated genotypes aren’t high.

According to Mehraj Ud Din, since saffron lacks efficient mechanisms for induction, the industry depends on nature.

The picture shows saplings growing on a farm
A view of the saffron grown on the ARSSSS campus for study purposes. Photo by Amir Bin Rafi.

flag picture: A close-up of the saffron under study, grown under controlled temperature at ARSSSS Pampore. Photo by Amir Bin Rafi.

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