As planet warms, ag scientists focus on roots of the problem


The San Jose Mercury News reports: Stanford researchers are developing a more efficient farm in preparation for a warmer and dryer Earth.

The group has genetically reprogrammed plants grown in a controlled environment to produce roots of varying lengths, widths, and branching patterns, all of which affect the plants’ ability to absorb nutrients and water.

A method of regulating root development may one day provide farmers with a useful new tool, particularly in regions prone to drought, flooding, and/or poor soil. As the world’s population continues to rise, experts warn that we’ll need to grow crops that can sustain a record harvest in increasingly challenging environments. If better root structures can boost agricultural yields, then maybe more food can be produced.

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Plant systems biologist and professor José Dinneny, whose work with bioengineering professor Jennifer Brophy was published in the journal Science, said, “The purpose of all of our work is to attempt to produce plants that promote the sustainability of agriculture.”
The scientists tampered with the root systems by inserting DNA with the ability to alter the plant’s genetic circuitry in response to environmental inputs. Similar to electrical switches, genes can be “switched on” or “off” to modify a creature’s behaviour.
Ultimately, we hope to engineer plants that can adapt to new conditions on their own.

Since Arabidopsis thaliana can be grown quickly and easily, the researchers decided to utilise it to test their method. As the concept has been tested and found to be effective, researchers hope to implement it in commercial crop production.

We may have less luck when applying this strategy in the real world. It’s impossible to foresee how a living organism will react in a natural setting. There may be a need to make adjustments to other genes or genetic networks.

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The Center for Food Safety and others have pointed out that there are other solutions to the problem that don’t include GMOs, such as employing conventional breeding methods to create plants that are more resilient to climate change.

Traditional genetic engineering, in which scientists insert snippets of DNA from bacteria into a plant’s genome to alter a specific attribute like pest and herbicide tolerance, has been used for years to try and improve plants. Producing corn, cotton, and soybeans that are resistant to the weedkiller Roundup has become the norm in American farms.
However, the emerging discipline of “synthetic biology” is hastening research by providing better tools. These days, entire genomes can be built from scratch or rewritten with the help of custom-made gene components ordered from foundries (or “fabs”) in the same way that businesses order cast and machined metal components.

CEO of SynBioBeta, a global network of biological engineers, John Cumbers, recently commented on the thriving Bay Area synthetic biology business, noting that many Bay Area entrepreneurs are programming biological functionality into living cells. Now, “we can easily create an enzyme or a cell to accomplish a certain purpose, such make a new bio-based chemical or substance.”

The horticulture world, however, “has remained essentially beyond of reach to scientists” until lately, he said. “Programming plants to grow into any shape we choose is one of the holy grails of bioengineering.”

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The Stanford method is sophisticated and flexible; rather than focusing on a single gene, it modifies the actions of a group of genes in order to affect root development in response to shifting environmental conditions.
By developing a genetic toggle switch analogous to a computer’s logic gate, the team was able to alter the circuitry with synthetic DNA.

By switching around genes, the team was able to alter growth patterns, such as the number of roots, without affecting the rest of the plant. For instance, a root’s growth can be halted when in a “off” state because a layer of cells forms at its tip.

The group envisions a future where crops can be programmed to grow angled root systems, either deeper to reach water or nitrogen or shallower to avoid drowning in floods due to a lack of oxygen. It’s possible to create plant varieties with dense root systems by designing them to send down a single, lengthy tap root.

Through increased use of fertiliser, high-yield cultivars, and irrigation techniques, global food output increased by 175 percent between 1960 and 2010. However, worldwide crop yields have plateaued.

Dinneny claims that domestication has resulted in plants that waste both water and nutrients. They function best in perfect conditions.
He went on to say that if we can increase productivity, we can protect the last of our wild places. He said that if we don’t want to cut more forests to make more agricultural area, we need to find better ways to cultivate plants for food.

How fast the planet warms will be crucial for liveability | Pursuit by The University of Melbourne
Critics of the experiment, such as Center for Food Safety science director Bill Freese, were, however, cautious.

The research “feels” like “innumerable other cases of hits and misses, usually misses,” he said. I’ve witnessed countless “pie in the sky” encounters fail due to technical limitations.

Freese argues that the potential of some GM plants has petered out. For instance, Roundup-resistant weeds are multiplying, rendering the engineered “Roundup Ready” brands of corn and soybeans useless. A Harvard study found that farmers are paying more on herbicides and farm labour.

He argued that we should invest more time and energy into enhancing environmental factors like soil quality rather than attempting to cure the problem at its genetic root. Sometimes far easier and more straightforward solutions can be found if you take a step back from the genes and look at the environment that the plant is growing in from a more macro level.

What do you think?

Written by Sarah Joseph

Hi, fellow readers! So glad you found my little writing nook on the internet. I am a freelance writer, occasionally moonlighting as a digital marketer as well. I love to read, mostly focusing on high-fantasy and thrillers. Here, on Geekybar, I share my thoughts and views on breaking and recent news form all around the world. Oh, and I LOVE covering all the celeb gossips so stick around for some really interesting stuff!


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