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Flax to the Future?

Deciphering how crops might evolve amid environmental stressors

Mike Scott

Illustration photo of a flower

Image by Getty Images

For 7,000 years, humans have cultivated the flax plant for its oil and protein-packed seeds and stem fibers used in textiles. But this versatile plant also may carry within its genetic code something that could lead to its greatest contribution to humanity yet. 

College of Arts and Sciences biologist Christopher Cullis, PhD, has deepened our understanding of flax and other key food crops. Last year, the American Association for the Advancement of Science named Cullis a Fellow, citing his “distinguished contributions to plant science by providing fundamentally new insights” into how these crops possibly evolve and adapt to stress.

As the climate changes, the world needs crop varieties that do better amid varying conditions, such as droughts, higher temperatures, pests and diseases. 

Flax, formally known as Linum usitatissimum, offers hope for a key reason: It “shows an ability to evolve within a single generation,” said Cullis, the Francis Hobart Herrick Professor of Biology. 

For example, in response to either temperature or nutritional intake, flax has modified its genome resulting in offspring that appear more adaptable than their parents to the conditions that led to the change.

 If scientists can isolate the genes that allow it to adapt so quickly—and determine how to turn them on and off—they may be able to develop a way to turn on or transfer similar genes in other plants.


Page last modified: January 16, 2024