FOOD SECURITY NEEDS MORE FROM GM CROPS
Only a better understanding of fundamental plant processes can exploit the potential of GM technology to create higher yielding, more resilient food crops
Genetic modification of plants will be essential to avert future food shortages, conclude a group of agricultural scientists who have reviewed how biotechnology developments over the past 35 years have shaped the efficiency of crop production.
GM crops able to repel insect pests or to resist herbicides have transformed the farming of soybean, cotton, maize and canola, reducing costs and increasing productivity, but lack of knowledge hinders further improvements in yield, particularly in testing climatic conditions, they say.
Scientists have identified some genes that affect crop yields, such as those influencing grain size and leaf growth, but have still to fully understand the cellular and developmental processes, and how these processes behave in a field environment, they note.
The team, from Rothamsted Research in the UK and from Syngenta Crop Science and Symmetry Bioanalytics in the US, present their review as an online opinion article in Trends in Plant Science.
“Our knowledge of the genes that limit yield in field conditions needs to be developed,” says Matthew Paul, plant biochemist at Rothamsted and leader of the review team. “At the moment, results that show promise in the lab don’t always work in the field.”
Paul continues: “We are emphasising the great potential of GM, and of genome editing and emerging chemical technologies as well, but in a sense the potential of the technologies on offer is running ahead of our ability to deploy them because we still don’t know enough about the many processes and genes that determine yields.”
He highlights how GM research at Rothamsted identified a sugar, trehalose 6-phosphate (T6P), that controls the volume of starch in cereal grain and, in GM field trials, substantially improved maize yields in the field, from 10% in well-watered crops to 120% under drought conditions.
“But we got there only because field trialling was conducted in parallel with fundamental science of which genes to target and how to target them in the field environment,” says Paul.
Subsequent collaboration with chemists at the University of Oxford led to the pioneering development of a chemical method to alter T6P that, if commercially successful, would enable farmers to spray an enhancer onto crops to increase grain yield.
“In the case of trehalose signalling, fundamental science has run alongside field evaluations to deliver yield improvements with a strong element of understanding mechanisms,” concludes the review paper.
Such a strategy is necessary, adds Paul, “if GM and future genome editing approaches and chemical technologies are to deliver on their promise of step changes in yield in a range of environments.”
The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) provides strategic funding for Rothamsted Research.
About Syngenta Crop Science
Syngenta is a leading agriculture company helping to improve global food security by enabling millions of farmers to make better use of available resources. Through world class science and innovative crop solutions, our 28,000 people in over 90 countries are working to transform how crops are grown. We are committed to rescuing land from degradation, enhancing biodiversity and revitalizing rural communities.
About Symmetry Bioanalytics
Symmetry Bioanalytics is a specialised contract research organisation, based in Durham, North Carolina. Our exclusive bioanalytical solutions for the Agribiotech industry are founded upon our accumulated knowledge and competencies in bioassays, enzymology, proteomics and phenomics. Our team of technical experts are adept at providing solutions to challenging problems to increase the efficiency and output of your R&D programme, and to broaden the applications for and attractiveness of your products.
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About Rothamsted Research
Rothamsted Research is the longest-running agricultural research institute in the world. We work from gene to field with a proud history of ground-breaking discoveries, from crop treatment to crop protection, from statistical interpretation to soils management. Our founders, in 1843, were the pioneers of modern agriculture, and we are known for our imaginative science and our collaborative influence on fresh thinking and farming practices.
Through independent science and innovation, we make significant contributions to improving agri-food systems in the UK and internationally. In terms of the institute’s economic contribution, the cumulative impact of our work in the UK was calculated to exceed £3000 million a year in 20151. Our strength lies in our systems approach, which combines science and strategic research, interdisciplinary teams and partnerships.
Rothamsted is also home to three unique resources. These National Capabilities are open to researchers from all over the world: The Long-Term Experiments, Rothamsted Insect Survey and the North Wyke Farm Platform.
We are strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), with additional support from other national and international funding streams, and from industry. We are also supported by the Lawes Agricultural Trust (LAT).
For more information, visit https://www.rothamsted.ac.uk/; Twitter @Rothamsted
1Rothamsted Research and the Value of Excellence: A synthesis of the available evidence, by Séan Rickard (Oct 2015)
The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council is part of UK Research and Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government.
BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.
Funded by government, BBSRC invested £469 million in world-class bioscience in 2016-17. We support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.
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The Lawes Agricultural Trust, established in 1889 by Sir John Bennet Lawes, supports Rothamsted Research’s national and international agricultural science through the provision of land, facilities and funding. LAT, a charitable trust, owns the estates at Harpenden and Broom's Barn, including many of the buildings used by Rothamsted Research. LAT provides an annual research grant to the Director, accommodation for nearly 200 people, and support for fellowships for young scientists from developing countries. LAT also makes capital grants to help modernise facilities at Rothamsted, or invests in new buildings.