Researchers in the University's Centre for Novel Agricultural Products (CNAP) have found a gene that plays a significant role in the growth rate of the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana.
The study published in the latest issue of Current Biology reveals that plants without the SPT gene grow at a faster rate at lower temperatures, but nevertheless have the same tolerance to freezing as plants that have the gene.
The research also shows that daytime temperatures have a particular influence on plant growth and that the SPT gene allows plants' to measure temperature in the morning.
Because most British crops are winter varieties that are sown in the autumn and harvested the following summer, plants that can grow larger during the lower temperatures of autumn, winter and spring have the potential to yield more biomass and larger numbers of seeds.
CNAP's Dr Steve Penfield, who led the research team said: "There is potential for this discovery to be used to increase crop yields by extending the growing season particularly in spring and autumn."
The research also involved scientists from the Institute of Molecular Plant Sciences in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Edinburgh.