The researchers are also looking at the role of the different genes: Are there differences in how they control specific biological processes or molecular functions? Are there differences in genes that could be involved in herbicide resistance? The researchers have discovered the resistant and non-resistant Palmer are genetically similar, and 97 to 98 percent of genes in Palmer have been identified in other biological organisms.

Learning more about the mechanism of resistance in Palmer amaranth could help farmers in several ways. One benefit would be developing precise — and, it is hoped, simple — in-field tests that would help growers identify resistant Palmer in their fields.

“What we could do with this information pretty easily would be to develop markers where we could go into a population and determine where there is resistance to different herbicides. One of the reasons why farmers don’t manage their resistance issues, or they haven’t in the past, is they’re not really sure they have a resistance problem. They believe, ‘If it comes to my field, I’ll deal with it.’”

But Burton believes that an in-field test could confirm a grower has herbicide-resistant Palmer. He hopes the information would encourage farmers to respond more quickly in dealing with resistant weeds, potentially slowing the spread of the resistance problem.

Palmer amaranth is native to the Sonoran Desert in the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico. As a result, it is capable of withstanding drought and temperatures of 95 to 105 degrees F. If genes controlling for drought heat tolerance could be identified and better understood, the genetic material could be incorporated into crops to make them more tolerant of hot, dry conditions that Southeast growers face.

Discovering the keys to Palmer’s relentless adaptability could help scientists use traits to growers’ advantage. Could cotton ever be as productive or as stress tolerant as Palmer amaranth? Burton believes it’s a question worth asking.
The fact that genetic research has become more affordable makes it possible for researchers to take a closer look at genetic composition, like that of Palmer amaranth, and to discover new information that could be used to the advantage of agriculture. “We can learn from this,” Burton said. “It is the start of a more detailed understanding of this rather amazing plant.”