Boosting Crop Yields via Genetics
Genetic engineering techniques offers many different promises, some of which will obviously come sooner than others. One of those promises was a possible end to famine, while most famine in the world today is in developing countries, that could spread as population increases. To that end scientists have announced a new way to dramatically increase crop yields by improving upon Mother Nature’s offerings. The team has discovered a set of gene variations that can boost fruit production in the tomato plant by as much as 100%.
Plant breeders will be able to combine different gene variants among the set to create an optimal plant architecture for particular varieties and growing conditions. The set of mutations will enable farmers to maximize yield in tomatoes and potentially many other flowering plants, including staple crops like soybeans.
“Traditionally, plant breeders have relied on natural variation in plant genes to increase yield, but yield gains are plateauing,” Lead researcher, Associate Professor Zachary Lippman notes. “There is an immediate need to find new ways for plant breeders to produce more food.”
Worldwide more than 842 million people do not receive adequate nourishment, about 1 person in 8 alive today. The cost of food is expected to increase and hunger is likely to become more widespread as the global population expands to beyond 9 billion by 2050.
Ancient humans and early plant breeders recognized that selecting plants with modified architectures could have a major impact on the amount of fruit they produce.
“Plant architecture results from a delicate balance between vegetative growth – shoots and leaves – and flower production. To increase crop yields, we want plants to produce as many flowers and fruits as possible, but this requires energy – energy that is produced in leaves,” Lippman explains.
In tomatoes and all other flowering plants, the balance between vegetative growth and flowers is controlled by a pair of opposing hormones, called florigen and anti-florigen. Prior work by Lippman and his colleagues showed that a mutation in florigen can shift the balance between vegetative growth and flowering, modifying plant architecture in a way that increases yield.
This suggested that the balance between florigen and anti-florigen might not yet be optimal in tomato plants, despite centuries of breeding with natural variants.
In the study, Lippman’s team identifies an array of new gene mutations that allow, for the first time, a way to fine-tune the balance of florigen to anti-florigen. This maximizes fruit production without compromising the energy from leaves needed to support those fruits.
“We mixed and matched all of the mutations,” explains Lippman. “And we were able to produce plants with a broad range of architectures. Together, our collection of mutations forms a powerful toolkit for breeders to pinpoint a new optimum in flowering and architecture that can achieve previously unattainable yield gains.”
The breakthrough benefit of the toolkit is that it allows farmers to customize genetic variations for particular varieties and growing conditions.
“For example, we found that different combinations boost yields for cherry tomatoes and other fresh-market tomatoes compared to tomatoes that are processed for sauce, ketchup, and other canned products. We’ve tested this in multiple genetic backgrounds, in multiple years, and in multiple environments – and the toolkit always provides a new maximum yield,” said Lippman.
These results are likely to be broadly applicable to other flowering crops. Mutations that affect florigen and anti-florigen are already known to play a role in controlling plant architecture for the oil crops rapeseed and sunflower, and can be applied in those. But the team is anxious to move on to critical food crops, specifically soybeans, which share many growth similarities with tomato.
To GMO or not To GMO: or GMO a Dirty Word
GMO or without the acronym genetically modified organisms are a little harder to define than you might think. By definition anytime we cross-breed plants we are genetically modifying an organism, most people think GMO and limit the definition to trans-species genetic modification (IE, the infamous fish/tomato gene swap to prevent freezing of tomatoes), when, in fact, that is not the bulk of GMO research.
GMO is unfortunately a term that does not mean what people think it means, much like the term organic actually refers to things that are carbon based. In fact, even in “organic” circles the term can mean different things to the people using it. This makes the idea of GMO dangerous, not because of the technology itself, but because of the different fears that people assign to it. GMO foods are actually things you and I eat every day, these things will never be labeled as “GMO,” nor will they ever carry any sort of controversy.
GMO technologies are very precise they have to be. Traditional breeding methods on the other hand are like rolling dice, you do not know what you will get out of it. Additionally mutation breeding is not, nor will it ever be, considered “GMO” although you might see how that practice is a little scarier, and a lot less safe, than modifying the genes specifically and with purpose.
To be clear I am very much “pro GMO,” but not for the reasons you might think. I am pro-GMO because the technologies have been shown (time and time again) to be safe. No one has died from GMO food, no one will, and frankly that is not the issue.
The real issue is that adding more and more red tape for people to have to cut through means that there will be fewer and fewer start up and biotech companies looking into the technology. That leaves us with Monsanto, the poster child of all that is “evil” with GMO, when in fact it is the company that is the problem. By creating the purely manufactured GMO controversy, we have created a natural monopoly and that only benefits Monsanto.
If I were slightly more paranoid, I would think that Monsanto is intentionally creating this controversy, after all the more red tape that separates them from anyone else trying to get into the market, the less competition they have to worry about, a plan that would truly be Monsanto worthy.
Z. Lippman et al. (2014). Optimization of crop productivity in tomato using induced mutations in the florigen pathway Nature Genetics : 10.1038/ng.3131