Research: Breakthrough in plant engineering could boost productivity
The yield of many staple crops could be boosted by 40 per cent by a new process that adjusts the way they turn sunlight into energy, potentially feeding hundreds of millions of more people, American researchers said. Crops such as rice, wheat and soybeans, as well as fruits and vegetables have a naturally occurring “glitch” in the way they photosynthesize that causes the plants to use up energy and resources, drastically suppressing productivity.
“The annual loss in production from wheat and soybean in Midwestern United States... is enough to feed roughly 200 million more people from this area alone,” Paul South, a molecular biologist and lead author, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Scientists from the University of Illinois and the US Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture Research Service changed how tobacco plants with the same glitch process sunlight, inserting genes from bacteria, green algae and other plants, they wrote in the journal Science.
They tested and compared three different genetic variations and found the most successful one saved enough energy and resources to increase productivity by 40 per cent in real-world conditions.
In more than two years of field studies, the genetically engineered tobacco plants developed faster and put out more leaves and stems than plants that weren’t modified, researchers said. The photosynthesis process is “nearly identical in plants so we expect that benefits observed in tobacco will result in changes to food crops,” said South.
Efforts are now underway to transplant these findings to boost yields of potatoes, cowpea, soybeans and rice, he added. “It takes 10-15 years for technologies like this to undergo rigorous regulatory approval process, which examines engineered crops for health and environmental impacts. Thus, it is all the more urgent to invest in these types of technologies today,” said South.
The study is part of an international project to boost global food production sustainably. Funders include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the British government.
Experts, however, say increased production of nutrient-rich foods, not just staple crops, is crucial to tackle the global malnutrition crisis which has left one in eight adults obese while one in nine people are hungry.