How to Make Crops Flood-Proof

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Water is a fact of life in Thailand and its capital of Bangkok, where one of the easiest ways to get around the traffic-clogged megacity is on water taxis. This is a country, after all, that celebrates a water festival—involving some serious Super Soakers—every year. But weeks of rains have caused the worst floods Thailand has experienced in more than five decades. Those floods have killed more than 340 people and have devastated part Thailand’s northern reaches, and Bangkok itself is now under threat. It’s gotten so bad that evacuees have been forced to take shelter in Bangkok’s international airport, and water now covers more than a third of the entire country.

Thai leaders are focused on protecting Bangkok—major damage there could triple or quadruple the economic damages from the floods, which have already reached more than $3.2 billion. But the rains have already devastated Thailand’s rice crop—more than 12% of the country’s rice harvest has been damaged by the floods. That will have a serious impact on the price of rice worldwide because Thailand accounts for nearly a third of the global rice trade. Nor does it help that other major rice producers in Southeast Asia—like the Philippines and Cambodia—have also lost crops because of the rain.

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In a warmer world, disasters like this one are likely to become more common and more devastating. That’s one more reason why global warming could severely damage harvests—a scary thought in a world that’s already passing 7 billion people. We’ll need to reduce carbon emissions to mitigate climate change as much as possible, but we’ll also need to adapt to the reality of a warmer, wetter world.

That’s why a new study published in the October 23 Nature is so important. Researchers at the University of Nottingham and the University of California-Riverside identified the molecular mechanism that plants use to sense low oxygen levels. That might sound academic, but the discovery is potentially the first step to developing crops that are resistant to floods—a vital means of adapting to climate change.

Photos from TIME: Flooding in Thailand

Michael Holdsworth, a professor of crop science at Nottingham and a lead author on the Nature study, said in a statement:

The mechanism controls key regulatory proteins called transcription factors that can turn other genes on and off. It is the unusual structure of these proteins that destines them for destruction under normal oxygen levels, but when oxygen levels decline, they become stable. Their stability results in changes in gene expression and metabolism that enhance survival in the low oxygen conditions brought on by flooding. When the plants return to normal oxygen levels, the proteins are again degraded, providing a feedback control mechanism.

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Holdsworth and his colleagues believe that researchers will eventually be able to manipulate the protein turnover mechanism in crops like rice, corn and wheat—producing plants that can weather periods of prolonged flooding. That kind of genetic manipulation may make some organic food advocates uncomfortable to say the least, but in a hot and wet world, we’ll need to produce crops that can fit the climate.

Bryan Walsh is a senior writer at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bryanrwalsh. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME