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Genetic tweaks create crops that can grow 50% more potatoes, rice

  • Published at 11:31 am August 2nd, 2021
Paddy sheef grain rice
Representational photo

Scientists from the Universities of Chicago, Peking and Guizhou field test crops with dramatic yield gain after RNA modulation; Nature Biotechnology carries the research outcome

A genetic tweaking has triggered crops to yield significantly more food and withstand drought, a team of scientists have just found.

The development comes at a time when growing enough food from increasingly scarce farmlands becomes one of mankind’s biggest challenge and scientists have long been working to boost crop production in the face of an increasingly unstable climate and a growing global population.

A scientists’ group from the University of Chicago, Peking University and Guizhou University, showed proof that the tweaking they carried out targeting plants RNA, not only gave better yields of rice and potato in their laboratory conditions but also yielded 50%higher in field trials.

Current issue of the ‘Nature Biotechnology’, a peer reviewed scientific journal published monthly by the 150 years old Nature Publishing Group of the United Kingdom, carried the research outcome under the title – ‘RNA demethylation increases the yield and biomass of rice and potato plants in field trials.’

University of Chicago has announced, “In initial tests, adding a gene encoding for a protein called FTO to both rice and potato plants increased their yield by 50% in field tests. The plants grew significantly larger, produced longer root systems and were better able to tolerate drought stress. Analysis also showed that the plants had increased their rate of photosynthesis.”

"The change really is dramatic," said University of Chicago Prof. Chuan He, who together with Prof. Guifang Jia at Peking University, led the research. "What's more, it worked with almost every type of plant we tried it with so far, and it's a very simple modification to make."

Countries like Bangladesh are extremely land-starved and three-quarter of Bangladesh’s total arable land is required for growing rice, the staple, to feed 170 million people, leaving little farmland to grow other food and cash crops.

Local scientists say, any new technology with dramatic yield rise potential would come handy for farmers in Bangladesh as that will allow them to grow other crops in lands, to be released from rice farming.

"This really provides the possibility of engineering plants to potentially improve the ecosystem as global warming proceeds," said Prof Chuan He, who is the John T Wilson Distinguished Service Professor of Chemistry, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. "We rely on plants for many, many things—everything from wood, food, and medicine, to flowers and oil—and this potentially offers a way to increase the stock material we can get from most plants."

University of Chicago News quoted the University’s Economics Professor Michael Kremer, a recipient of the Nobel Prize, as saying, “This is a very exciting technology and could potentially help address problems of poverty and food insecurity at a global scale—and could also potentially be useful in responding to climate change.”  

How does it work?

In animals and plants, the RNA molecule reads DNA, then makes proteins to carry out tasks. Primary role of RNA (Ribonucleic acid – a single-stranded molecule) is to convert the information stored in DNA (Deoxyribonucleic acid - a double-stranded molecule) into proteins.

Prof Chuan He’s lab opened an entire new field of research by discovering the keys to a different way that genes are expressed in mammals. It turns out that RNA doesn't simply read the DNA blueprint and carry it out blindly; the cell itself can also regulate which parts of the blueprint get expressed. It does so by placing chemical markers onto RNA to modulate which proteins are made and how many.

Prof Chuan He and Guifang Jia, a former UChicago postdoctoral researcher who is now an associate professor at Peking University, began to wonder how it affected plant biology.

They focused on a protein called FTO, the first known protein that erases chemical marks on RNA, which Jia found as a postdoctoral researcher in He's group at UChicago. The scientists knew it worked on RNA to affect cell growth in humans and other animals, so they tried inserting the gene for it into rice plants—and then watched in amazement as the plants took off.

The rice plants grew three times more rice under laboratory conditions and then they field tested it and got wonderful results with rice yielding 50% more rice. They tried it in potato and witnessed a similar yield growth in the tuber crop too. 

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