RNA breakthrough creates crops that can grow 50 percent more potatoes, rice

New research led by the University of Chicago shows huge promise to defeating global hunger by using genetic modification of crops to increase food production by 50 percent and make them more resilient in the face of droughts.

According to the University of Chicago News:

Manipulating RNA can allow plants to yield dramatically more crops, as well as increasing drought tolerance, announced a group of scientists from the University of Chicago, Peking University and Guizhou University.

In initial tests, adding a gene encoding for a protein called FTO to both rice and potato plants increased their yield by 50% in field tests. The plants grew significantly larger, produced longer root systems and were better able to tolerate drought stress. Analysis also showed that the plants had increased their rate of photosynthesis.

“The change really is dramatic,” said University of Chicago Prof. Chuan He, who together with Prof. Guifang Jia at Peking University led the research. “What’s more, it worked with almost every type of plant we tried it with so far, and it’s a very simple modification to make.”

The researchers—along with other leading experts—are hopeful about the potential of this breakthrough, especially in the face of climate change and other pressures on crop systems worldwide.

“This really provides the possibility of engineering plants to potentially improve the ecosystem as global warming proceeds,” said He, who is the John T. Wilson Distinguished Service Professor of Chemistry, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. “We rely on plants for many, many things—everything from wood, food, and medicine, to flowers and oil—and this potentially offers a way to increase the stock material we can get from most plants.”

“This is a very exciting technology and could potentially help address problems of poverty and food insecurity at a global scale—and could also potentially be useful in responding to climate change,” said Michael Kremer, who was awarded a Nobel Prize for his work on alleviating global poverty, and is the University Professor in Economics and the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago.

Technological breakthroughs like these are why the gloom and doom prophecies of famine, death and despair peddled by environmental groups are nearly always wrong. Fewer people are hungry today than 20 years ago, and there will be fewer hungry people 20 years from now than there are today. Despite the prevailing culture of pessimism, the world becomes a better place every year.

The University of Chicago News Continues:

For decades, scientists have been working to boost crop production in the face of an increasingly unstable climate and a growing global population. But such processes are usually complicated, and often result only in incremental changes.

The way this discovery came about was quite different.

Rice plants grew three times more rice under laboratory conditions. When they tried it out in real field tests, the plants grew 50% more mass and yielded 50% more rice. They grew longer roots, photosynthesized more efficiently, and could better withstand stress from drought.

The scientists repeated the experiments with potato plants, which are part of a completely different family. The results were the same.

“That suggested a degree of universality that was extremely exciting,” He said.

This technological breakthrough could be the next step in the Green Revolution that University of Minnesota graduate Norman Borlaug jump-started in the 1950s and 1960s. It will allow us to feed more people while farming fewer acres. This will be an unqualified benefit to humanity and the environment.