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‘Genetic Hack' can effectively Increase Plant Yield by 40 %: Latest Research

Abha Toppo
Abha Toppo

Researchers at the University of Illinois since years have been trying to discover whether a crop can be genetically modified to boost its growth or not.

In results published in Science last week, researchers confirmed they were successful in making tobacco plants 40 % bigger and all thanks to a ‘shortcut’ or ‘genetic hack’.

The goal is not to produce more tobacco but to apply the same technique to soy beans or wheat, so as to meet people’s growing food demand. It must be noted that their research is part of an international project that is being funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation and the British government.

Since years, farmers have been using pesticides, fertilizers and other agricultural techniques to attain higher productivity, but these methods appear to have run their path and it is thought unlikely they can extract more important gains.

Researchers at the university's Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology said they have found a method to make the process of photosynthesis - a process by which plants utilize sunlight to convert carbon dioxide and water into energy, naturally more efficient.

An enzyme known as Rubisco is key to the process of changing atmospheric carbon into an organic compound that the plant consumes, a process which is called "carbon fixation.

However the enzyme also works to ‘fix’ atmospheric oxygen, changing it into toxic compounds that the plant uses up considerable energy eliminating energy that could otherwise be used up in growing. This process is known as photorespiration.

The researchers’ team brought the idea of embedding bits of algae DNA into the cells of tobacco plant to make a type of biological shortcut that would accelerate photorespiration.

Donald Ort, the lead author said, "If you take a shortcut while driving your car, you travel lesser distance and also use less fuel."

If a plant uses less energy on photorespiration, it “is capable of taking that energy and putting it into plant growth and plant productivity, rather than using it to metabolize this toxic compound."

It is for the first time that the method, which has been discussed for many years, had such a big impact in an open ground as opposed to a laboratory environment.

Several other techniques had tried to restrict photorespiration, but led to negative impacts on other functions of the plants.

President of Boyce Thompson Institute, David Stern said, "What's cool about this is that they have been very intelligent in targeting the pathway in a way that does not cause side effects”.

However it is far from being ready to be utilized on an industrial scale. The team now wants to reproduce their results with potatoes, soybeans and black eyed peas. It is also essential for the process to work in different climates, particularly Africa and Southeast Asia.

Arnold Bloom, Professor from the University of California mentioned that several experiments have been conducted in the past 5 to 6 years, without achieving any goals.

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