In times of global warming, there are increasing difficulties in growing food: too high temperatures and too little precipitation make it difficult for farmers to achieve yields that were once thought to be secure. This can be remedied by using varieties that are already bearing more fruit. Accordingly, the further development of crops is of great importance.
120 varieties searched
Sometimes it’s about five percent more income, sometimes ten percent. Really significant successes, on the other hand, are rarely achieved. But when they do, they can be resounding. This is now shown by the work of a research team from the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS), whose headquarters are in Beijing. The group created a new rice variety that can increase yields by up to 40 percent. But that’s not all: only a single genetic parameter was changed.
The group led by grain scientist Wenbin Zhou examined around 120 known varieties of rice and maize for regulatory genes that control transcription factors involved in photosynthesis. The focus was in particular on nitrogen uptake: If the genes were activated in soil with low nitrogen content, according to the theory, they should also be able to increase nitrogen uptake in normal soil – and thus stimulate growth.
Less nitrogen, more yield
According to the study, which appeared in the journal Science, 13 potential gene candidates were discovered, five of which at least quadrupled nitrogen uptake. The most interesting gene, called OsDREB1C, was tested in a research rice variety, which showed that the plants then grew more slowly. On the other hand, one or more extra copies of the gene ensured faster growth with longer roots. Further improvements were made in a central enzyme for photosynthesis, which accelerated energy turnover.
When incorporated into commercial rice varieties, the additional OsDREB1C copies provided a yield increase of up to 40 percent, which researchers familiar with the study say is “amazing.” Even better: the gene should also lead to better yields in other crops such as wheat.
However, OsDREB1C is inserted using genetic engineering – it is then a transgenic plant. Since this does not please every customer, there is also the possibility of using somewhat less controversial methods such as CRISPR gene scissors. Experts anticipate great leaps in yield increases in the future as well, as long as the right transcription factors can be found. This can also help to better prepare plants for drier or less nutrient-rich soils that climate change could bring.
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