A team led by an Illinois scientist has discovered a way to boost crop yield and make plants more resistant to drought.
University of Chicago professor Chuan He, along with scientists from Pekin University and Guizho University, both in China, manipulated rice and potato plant genes, boosting yields by 50 percent.
The plants grew significantly larger, produced longer root systems, and were better able to tolerate drought stress. During outside field tests, the plants grew 50 perent more and yielded 50 percent more rice.
Professor He said his team tried the application on several other plants, so it could work on Illinois’ cash crops, corn and soybeans.
“We only published the rice and the potatoes, but we did try other plants,” He said. “The beauty of this approach; it's simple, robust and seems to be general.”
One could only wonder what the discovery could have on Illinois’ agriculture industry. Marketing of Illinois’ agricultural commodities generates more than $19 billion annually. Corn accounts for 54 percent of that total, and soybeans contribute 27 percent.
He said the simple way to explain the process is to remember the RNA molecule reads DNA, which encodes all the genetic information. His lab has been working with RNA for the past decade.
His team discovered that RNA doesn't simply read the DNA blueprint but can also regulate which parts of the blueprint get expressed. That led them to apply the process to plant biology.
The team then introduced an animal protein that works on RNA into rice plants; the plants grew bigger and developed a more robust root structure.
He said the application could eventually address food security around the world.
“The increase of crop production would definitely help solve, potentially I hope, the food problem,” He said.