Fresh insight into how plants slow their growth in cold weather could help scientists develop crops suited to cooler environments.
Researchers have shown for the first time that a gene - known as Spatula - limits the growth of plants in cool temperatures, possibly helping them adjust to cool conditions.
Researchers at the University of Edinburgh, who took part in the study, believe that by manipulating the gene, they could produce the opposite effect - enabling development of crops that grow well in cold climates.
Scientists studied the Spatula gene in a weed known as thale cress and found that when levels of the gene were low, the plant leaves grew almost twice as much at lower temperatures as they would normally.
Being able to improve crop growth under cool conditions - in which growth would typically be slow - could help ensure the availability of food supplies for future populations.
The study, carried out by the Universities of Edinburgh and York, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the Garfield Weston Foundation and the Royal Society, was published in Current Biology.
Dr Karen Halliday of the University of Edinburgh's School of Biological Sciences, who took part in the study, said: "We have pinpointed a key gene linked to the growth of plants according to the temperature - this could be of real interest in improving crop yields and food security in temperate climates."