Modified Supercrops

The second of UN's sustainable development goals is to end hunger and achieve food security. It's a goal that's getting harder to accomplish as we face growing populations and climate change, among other obstacles.

A team of researchers aim to propose using genetically modified wheat as a viable solution. The increased crop yield is met by making targeted alterations to the plant's genetic code, increasing its ability to collect carbon dioxide, therefore enhancing photosynthesis.

In photosynthesis, plants take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which then reacts with sunlight and water to synthesize the plant's sustenance. Wheat, the crop used in testing, is particularly inefficient in this process since the molecules within the plant used to pull the carbon dioxide are in short supply.

The UK researchers added extra copies of an enzyme called SBPase, to increase the supply of the five-carbon molecule of Cadenza wheat. Besides assisting in photosynthesis, the modification can also possibly help to mitigate rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. “In higher levels of CO2, this works even better,” said researcher Malcolm Hawkesford of Rothamsted Research in Harpenden. More plants taking more carbon dioxide, leaves less to impact climate change.

A GM Future

The team is currently arranging for field trials in the spring of next year to see if the percentage of yield increase observed in the greenhouse will translate to real-environment simulations.

Genetically-modified crops face much controversy in a largely unexplained fear that they're unsafe to eat, and doubt over their effectiveness to actually bring in higher yields.

GM crops still have to truly prove themselves before meeting every promise embodied in the idea of the "supercrop." Still, it's clear that scientists are up for the challenge. Engineered plants have already given us pest-resilient cotton, nutrition-rich oil, and fruit that can resist fungal disease, to name a few.  Technology like this could bring us a step further to better feeding the earth.

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