Ten years ago, 40 of the world’s countries were facing massive food shortages. Now, almost 50 percent of the population lacks reasonable access to food supplies. Earth’s population will hit nine billion by the year 2050, and it’s getting harder to keep everyone fed and properly nourished.
Scientists are now seeking ways to hasten food production. Many believe they’ve found the answer in genetically modified plants, which for the most part, are nothing new. Agricultural corporations have invoked gene engineering in plants for several years, but the controversies surrounding GMOs have never subsided. Opponents view the world of plant engineering (or “Franken-foods”) with an air of distrust and suspicion, while others argue that GMOs are simply misunderstood, and necessary to feed our future generations.
Through a recent study, researchers at both the University of Illinois and UC Berkley managed to modify tobacco plants by enhancing their photosynthesis genes, quickening the process by up to 20 percent. Should the process prove feasible in other crops, the results could make famine a thing of the past.
“We don’t know for certain if this approach will work in other crops,” says biology professor and study leader Stephen Long. “But because we’re targeting a universal process that is the same in all crops, we’re pretty sure it will.”
Plants can burn the way humans do when exposed to sunlight, so they shield themselves through a process known as non-photochemical quenching (NPQ). Plants release stored energy as heat, which typically causes their chloroplasts to become less efficient. The process slows when plants experience shade, but researchers say this takes too long to cease, leaving plants deprived of valuable “sugar-making time.”
“Crop leaves exposed to full sunlight absorb more light than they can use,” Long explains. “If they can’t get rid of this extra energy, it will actually bleach the leaf. When a cloud crosses the sun or a leaf goes into the shade of another, it can take up to half-an-hour for that NPQ process to relax. In the shade, the lack of light limits photosynthesis, and NPQ Is also wasting light as heat.”
This began Long’s experiment to spike photosynthesis. Tobacco was chosen due to its simple biology, and the scientists increased the crops’ protein production by inserting genes from mustard weeds. Measuring carbon dioxide intake and the updated speeds, the team determined that photosynthesis ultimately occurred at a quickened pace, causing the tobacco crops to grow significantly faster. The team is now looking to apply its newfound knowledge to something other than cigarette fodder.
“We’re working to make the same modifications in rice and other food crops,” says Berkeley faculty scientist Krishna Niyogi. “The molecular processes we’re modifying are fundamental to plants that carry out photosynthesis, so we hope to see a similar increase in yield in other crops.”
In the past, plants like wheat and soy have produced more seeds when exposed to higher levels of carbon dioxide. UCLA biochemist Sabeeha Merchant calls the results “amazing,” and hopes for an abrupt end to our planet’s ongoing food problems.
“If this could be put into all of our food and feed and fuel crops, then it would certainly solve a decade or more’s worth of our need for these agricultural products,” he reports. “I have my fingers crossed that they’ll put it into a crop plant and it’ll work, and even if it doesn’t work at 15 percent, even if it works at five percent, that’s still pretty good if you think about how much agriculture we’re doing, not just in the U.S. but worldwide.”