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Can Hacking Plants Feed the World? The Research Looks Good

Scientists Amanda Cavanagh (left), Paul South (center) and Donald Ort (right) found tobacco plants engineered to shortcut photorespiration are about 40 percent more productive in real-world field conditions.
Claire Benjamin/RIPE Project
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Scientists Amanda Cavanagh (left), Paul South (center) and Donald Ort (right) found tobacco plants engineered to shortcut photorespiration are about 40 percent more productive in real-world field conditions.

Plants are good at what they do — turning sunlight into food. However, some researchers have found the leaf world could improve, and that could have a major effect on the world’s growing population.

In an article published this month in the journal Science, a team of researchers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the University of Illinois explained how parts of a plant accidentally grab oxygen instead of carbon dioxide, which leads to spending energy to fix that mistake instead of going straight to growth and development.

However, USDA Agricultural Research Service molecular biologist Paul South found, this could be circumvented by adding enzymes (or proteins) to plants and effectively shutting down some of the plant’s normal pathways.

“We get about a 40 percent increase in plant production,” he said, referring to the tobacco crop they’ve been field testing for the last few years.

South is part of an international research project called RIPE, or Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency. The project aims to make plants better at photosynthesis to ensure the world has enough food in the coming decades or centuries. But the published research only deals with tobacco plants so far.

The research could have implications for people who live in areas with increasing drought, said

Amanda Cavanagh, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Illinois, who also took part in the research.

“Hopefully we can use these as the formation of a toolkit for plants that will allow us to be better able to cope with the climate scenarios that we’re going to encounter as we struggle to feed more people,” she said.

However, the hack is just the first step in creating crops that grow more efficiently. The researchers will next try the hack with food-producing plants like potatoes, a close relative of the tobacco plant. After that, it could still take more than a decade for more efficient seeds to get government approvals and find their way into farmers’ fields.

Still, some believe that estimates of future food necessity are overblown, like ActionAid, an international nonprofit aimed at fighting poverty and injustice.

The group acknowledges the world’s population will need some more food, but doesn’t think that research to help industrial agriculture is the way to do it. Instead, ActionAid promotes limiting food waste, researching impacts of climate change and encouraging small-scale agriculture in food-insecure areas.

Follow Madelyn on Twitter: @MadelynBeck8

Copyright 2019 Harvest Public Media

Madelyn Beck is a regional Illinois reporter, based in Galesburg. On top of her work for Harvest Public Media, she also contributes to WVIK, Tri-States Public Radio and the Illinois Newsroom collaborative.
Madelyn Beck
Madelyn Beck is a regional Illinois reporter, based in Galesburg. On top of her work for Harvest Public Media, she also contributes to WVIK, Tri-States Public Radio and the Illinois Newsroom collaborative. Beck is from a small cow ranch in Manhattan, Montana. Her previous work was mostly based in the western U.S., but she has covered agriculture, environment and health issues from Alaska to Washington, D.C. Before joining Harvest and the Illinois Newsroom, she was as an energy reporter based in Wyoming for the public radio collaborative Inside Energy. Other publications include the Idaho Mountain Express, E&E News/EnergyWire, KRBD Rainbird Radio, the Montana Broadcasters Association, Montana Public Radio and the Tioga Tribune.