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US: Night-time heat is killing crops, scientists are rushing to find resilient plants

As the sun sets outside with temperatures in the high 80s, where they’ll stay most of the night, several varieties of potted rice plants grow in two sections of a greenhouse on the roof of the Arkansas State University Biosciences Institute. In one section, the greenhouse temperature is about the same as the temperature outside; in the other, it has been raised by 4C. Here, a dry, brittle flower droops from one of the plants, its development stunted by the heat.

This is the most important part of the day for Argelia Lorence, a professor of metabolic engineering, and her team’s research project. Because while the climate crisis is pushing daytime temperatures to record highs, those at night are rising significantly faster. This is a big problem for humans and animals, who struggle to cool their bodies at night. But it’s also a crisis for plants, which have fewer defense mechanisms available at night, posing a huge threat to the global food system.

Lorence and her team at Arkansas State University Biosciences Institute are part of a race to figure out how to create varieties of rice – the main food source for billions of people and a vital crop for farmers around the world – that can withstand the impacts of a fast-changing climate.

In 2019, they launched a two-year experiment in rice breeder RiceTec’s experimental fields in Harrisburg, Arkansas, applying heat stress to different varieties of rice crops. The team built six customizable greenhouses that allow them to grow rice in field conditions during the day and create higher temperatures at night. The greenhouses were built from a kit, assembled from parts “like Lego pieces,” including walls that slide back and forth and a roof that rolls back to expose plants to the air.

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