As climate change kicks in, droughts could lead to lower crop yields in the future. But genetic manipulation could help prevent this, researchers argued, having modified a tobacco plant with an algae-based protein so as to increase growth and reduce its need for water.
The study focused on photosynthesis, the process through which plants use sunlight and carbon dioxide to produce nutrients for their growth. Improving this process would be highly beneficial for agriculture but it is so complex that attempts to do so have failed in the past.
The researchers used genetic manipulation to increase the levels of a naturally-occurring enzyme that is already present in the tobacco plant, and to introduce a new enzyme from cyanobacteria and a protein from algae. Doing so improved the photosynthesis process and also meant less water was needed to grow higher crop yields.
“The global population is increasing, and that means we need to grow more food. We are also seeing the effects of climate change, creating more extreme weather, so we will have more droughts. That means we are going to need to make better use of water. We need more crops from the same amount of land, and with less water,” Patricia Lopez-Calcagno, a co-author, told The Guardian.
Dealing with such challenges using conventional plant breeding techniques could be possible, but it would take many decades and time is running short, the researchers argued. Instead, they decided to take a shortcut that wasn’t available in nature by introducing a gene from algae.
While many people frequently question GMO crops, the researchers said the genetic modification performed on the plants to create the enhanced photosynthesis is quite different. Lopez-Calcagno said that "there’s nothing to worry about this" and said GMOs have had a bad press, associated with the overuse of pesticides and big corporations.
The study started in 2013 and it will take around five to ten years of development to be able to grow crops with the technique. The algae showed potential for other uses of photosynthesis such as capturing and storing carbon dioxide. There are labs already working on using algae as a biofuel, for example.
The use of GMO crops has been banned in the European Union after a directive in 2001. There’s only one type of GMO maize grown in EU states, mainly in Spain and Portugal. One of the triggers behind the directive was the attempt to introduce a fish gene into tomatoes, research that didn't pan out.
The positive results encouraged the team from the University of Essex in the UK to refine the technique even further so as to use it on other crops, including soybeans and rice. This could be beneficial to deal with the challenges faced by agriculture, including a warmer world and the need to increase efficiency.
The study was published in the journal Nature Plants.