Arguments concerning genetic engineering of the world’s food supply are nothing new. Many members of the scientific community argue GMO foods are just as safe to consume as their naturally grown counterparts, while others fear that tampering with our crops could lessen the integrity of our meals.
But, what if genetic engineering could increase food production by 40 to 50% and offer enormous benefits for the world’s poorest people, many of them farmers working small plots of land in the developing world?
That could eventually be the reality as new research has shown that by using an genetic engineering techniques to alter photosynthesis, a team of scientists were able to increase the productivity of a test plant — tobacco — by as much as 20%. Published by the journal Science, this is a huge increase, given that plant breeders struggle to eke out gains of 1 to 2% with more conventional approaches.
A recent article explains that the scientists have no interest in increasing the production of tobacco; their plan is to try the same alterations in food crops, and one of the leaders of the work believes production gains of 50% or more may ultimately be achievable. If that prediction is borne out in further research — it could take a decade, if not longer, to know for sure — the result might be nothing less than a transformation of global agriculture.
“We’re here because we want to alleviate poverty,” said Katherine Kahn, an officer at the Gates Foundation overseeing the grant for the Illinois-based research. “What is it the farmers need, and how can we help them get there?” she asked in the article.
The research involves photosynthesis, in which plants use carbon dioxide from the air and energy from sunlight to form new, energy-rich carbohydrates. These compounds are, in turn, the basic energy supply for almost all animal cells, including those of humans. The mathematical description of photosynthesis is sometimes billed as “the equation that powers the world,” the article explains.
For a decade, Stephen P. Long, a crop scientist involved in the study, has argued that photosynthesis is not actually very efficient. In the course of evolution, several experts said, Mother Nature had focused on the survival and reproduction of plants, not on putting out the maximum amount of seeds or fruits for humans to come along and pick.
Long thought crop yields might be improved by certain genetic changes. Other scientists doubted it would work, but with the Science paper, Long and his collaborator, Krishna K. Niyogi, have gone a long way toward proving their point. No one plans to eat tobacco, of course, but the researchers used it because tobacco is a particularly fast and easy plant to try new genetic alterations and see how well they work.
In the initial work, the researchers transferred genes from a common laboratory plant, known as thale cress or mouse-ear cress, into strains of tobacco. The effect was not to introduce alien substances, but rather to increase the level of certain proteins that already existed in tobacco, the article explains.
When plants receive direct sunlight, they are often getting more energy than they can use, and they activate a mechanism that helps them shed it as heat — while slowing carbohydrate production. The genetic changes the researchers introduced help the plant turn that mechanism off faster once the excessive sunlight ends, so that the machinery of photosynthesis can get back more quickly to maximal production of carbohydrates.
The researchers describe this a bit like a factory worker taking a shorter coffee break before getting back to the assembly line. But the effect on the overall growth of the tobacco plants was surprisingly large.
When the scientists grew the newly created plants in fields at the University of Illinois, they achieved yield increases of 13.5% in one strain, 19% in a second and 20% in a third, over normal tobacco plants grown for comparison.
Because the machinery of photosynthesis in many of the world’s food crops is identical to that of tobacco, theory suggests that a comparable manipulation of those crops should increase production. Work is planned to test that in crops that are especially important as dietary staples in Africa, like cowpeas, rice and cassava.
Barry D. Bruce of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, who studies photosynthesis, pointed out, however, that the genetic alteration might behave differently in crops where only parts of the plant, such as seeds or fruits, are harvested. In tobacco, by contrast, the entire above ground plant is harvested.
Bruce also noted that, now that the principle has been established, it might be possible to find plant varieties with the desired traits and introduce the changes into crops by conventional breeding, rather than by genetic engineering. Dr. Long and his group agreed this might be possible.
“We’re in a year when commodity prices are very low, and people are saying the world doesn’t need more food,” Long said. “But if we don’t do this now, we may not have it when we really need it.”
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