Farmers could grow wheat and rice in hotter, dryer environments with less fertilizer, while possibly increasing yields by half
With projections of 9.5 billion people by 2050, humankind faces the challenge of feeding modern diets to additional mouths while using the same amounts of water, fertilizer and arable land as today.
The gene, called Scarecrow, is the first discovered to control a special leaf structure, known as Kranz anatomy, which leads to more efficient photosynthesis. Plants photosynthesize using one of two methods: C3, a less efficient, ancient method found in most plants, including wheat and rice; and C4, a more efficient adaptation employed by grasses, maize, sorghum and sugarcane that is better suited to drought, intense sunlight, heat and low nitrogen.
“Researchers have been trying to find the underlying genetics of Kranz anatomy so we can engineer it into C3 crops,” said Thomas Slewinski, lead author of a paper that appeared online in November in the journal Plant and Cell Physiology. Slewinski is a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of senior author Robert Turgeon, professor of plant biology in the College of Arts and Sciences.
The finding “provides a clue as to how this whole anatomical key is regulated,” said Turgeon. “There’s still a lot to be learned, but now the barn door is open and you are going to see people working on this Scarecrow pathway.” The promise of transferring C4 mechanisms into C3 plants has been fervently pursued and funded on a global scale for decades, he added.
If C4 photosynthesis is successfully transferred to C3 plants through genetic engineering, farmers could grow wheat and rice in hotter, dryer environments with less fertilizer, while possibly increasing yields by half, the researchers said.
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