Campus scientists contribute to study showing potential of plant gene manipulation to combat hunger

Tobacco Plant Test Field
David Drag/University of Illinois/Courtesy

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UC Berkeley and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign scientists collaborated on a study published earlier this month examining the potential of genetic manipulation in plants to combat world hunger.

Researchers altered several key genes in tobacco plants found in other common crops to enhance their yield. Their results, an increase of 14 to 20 percent in biomass, were a tenfold improvement over normal conditions, according to Bob Buchanan, a campus emeritus professor not involved with the study.

“That’s an enormous increase,” said Buchanan, a plant and microbial biology professor. “Plant breeders go for 1 or 2 percent, taking corn yield as an example.”

Senior co-author and UC Berkeley professor Krishna Niyogi acknowledged in an email that the results of the four-year study represented a “breakthrough” compared to previous studies in the field.

Typically, during photosynthesis, plants utilize light energy, which is ultimately converted to chemical energy; excessive sunlight, however, can be destructive to the efficiency of the plant’s biomass production. Plants have a system called non photo-chemical quenching (NPQ), a photoprotective response to the damaging effects of sunlight that Niyogi likened to a “safety valve” to alleviate excess pressure on the plant.

“Too much sunlight is actually bad for plants, it is toxic to them. So one way they protect themselves is through NPQ,” said Kathryn Barton, an associate biology professor at Stanford University.  “The NPQ process takes a while, it’s like you can put on your sunglasses on really fast, but you can only take them off really slowly.”

The Niyogi Lab at UC Berkeley focuses on photoprotection with the intention of improving it to increase photosynthesis and crop productivity. Niyogi cited projections from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, which estimate that an increase of crop yield by at least 70 percent by the year 2050 is crucial to supply the rapidly growing population.

“Unfortunately, the current rate of increase through traditional breeding is not at a rate that would meet that projected demand by mid-century,” Niyogi continued. “The idea is that we may need some transformative changes that could improve plant productivity.”

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funded the research in the hopes of fighting poverty and increasing agricultural production, especially for poor farmers in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia.

Niyogi hopes that the methods utilized in this study will someday become common practice for agricultural crops such as rice, cassava, cowpea, sour gum, maize and soybeans, with the goal of achieving the same results with tobacco to increase yield.

“Business as usual plant breeding is probably not going to get us the point we need,” Niyogi said. This is one of the several approaches that we are hoping will be successful in the next few years.”

Contact Mariah De Zuzuarregui at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @mdezuzuarregui.