One crop breeding cycle from starvation

March 29, 2016
Transgenic tobacco seedlings were the proof of concept that showed enhancing photosynthetic processes can increase yield in high CO2 conditions. Credit: Stephen Long

In the race against world hunger, we're running out of time. By 2050, the global population will have grown and urbanized so much that we will need to produce 87 percent more of the four primary food crops - rice, wheat, soy, and maize - than we do today.

At the same time, the climate is projected to change over the next 30 years, with warmer temperatures and more carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. Crop plants can adapt to change through evolution, but at a much slower rate than the changes we are causing in the atmosphere. Furthermore, the land available for growing is unlikely to expand to accommodate the predicted rise in demand. In fact, land suited to food crop production is being lost on a global scale.

"We have to start increasing production now, faster than we ever have. Any innovation we make today won't be ready to go into farmers' fields for at least 20 years, because we'll need time for testing, product development, and approval by government agencies. On that basis, 2050 is not so far off. That's why we say we're one crop breeding cycle away from starvation," says University of Illinois crop scientist Stephen P. Long.

Researchers at U of I, along with their large, multi-institution team, say a solution lies in genetically engineering photosynthetic mechanisms to take advantage of the projected rise in and CO2, and to achieve much higher yields on the same amount of land.

"The rate of photosynthesis in crops like soy and rice is determined by two factors," Long explains. "One is the enzyme which traps the CO2: we call that rubisco. Under lower atmospheric CO2 levels and at , rubisco can make a mistake and use oxygen instead of CO2. When it uses oxygen, it actually ends up releasing CO2 back into the atmosphere."

Under higher levels of CO2, such as those projected for future climates, rubisco becomes much more efficient and photosynthesis rates naturally increase as it makes fewer mistakes. The carbon fixed by rubisco is eventually turned into carbohydrates that the plant can use as an energy source for producing grains, fruits, and vegetative structures.

However, rising temperatures are projected to accompany increased CO2. Unfortunately, rubisco's increased efficiency under high CO2 begins to break down in hot climates. That's why project partners are looking to improve rubisco so that it will operate efficiently in both high temperature and high CO2 conditions.

"Our partners are looking at a wide range of rubiscos from different organisms to see whether they can find one that will make fewer of these mistakes in hot climates," Long says.

But the team is not stopping at improving rubisco.

Long adds, "The second factor that can limit photosynthesis is the rate at which everything else in the leaf regenerates the CO2-acceptor molecule, known as RuBP. As we go to higher CO2 levels, instead of being limited by rubisco, we're limited by this regeneration step. We're looking at ways to manipulate the speed of that regeneration."

The researchers developed mathematical models that showed how, by altering the way nitrogen is divided between parts of the photosynthetic apparatus, more carbohydrate could be made under conditions of higher temperature and CO2 without the crop requiring more nitrogen fertilizer.

The models were then taken for a test-run in the field. Using genetic engineering methods, the team tried to speed up the regeneration of RuBP in tobacco plants while subjecting them to high-CO2 environments. The proof of concept worked: photosynthesis rates and yield increased.

The group's next step will include tests on staple food crops in controlled environments and in field trials. Long stresses that this potential solution won't be ready for commercial roll-out for many years, but they won't give up.

"In the face of the extraordinary challenges ahead, we simply do not have the luxury to rule out the use of any technology that may hold promise to improve crop performance," he notes.

Explore further: Rubisco activase best clue for better photosynthesis in fluctuating light

More information: Johannes Kromdijk et al. One crop breeding cycle from starvation? How engineering crop photosynthesis for rising CO and temperature could be one important route to alleviation , Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences (2016). DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2015.2578

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4.8 / 5 (5) Mar 29, 2016
I think there are many pieces to the solution of this problem. Farming the oceans has a lot of potential. Shifting our agriculture over to small scale organic farms - vs massive scale monocultures. Hydroponics and aquaponics - in the cities are interesting options. Greening the desert type programs also look really positive. We have a lot of options in terms of efficiencies - and creative programs.
2.3 / 5 (6) Mar 29, 2016
Just because you are Malthusian doesn't mean you are right. Like most human you so misjudge the future as to be laughable.

Change the headline to -- "If technology remains static and nothing changes for 50 years, blah blah blah, humans were never meant to fly, blah.
3 / 5 (4) Mar 29, 2016
The history of life is long periods of stability punctuated with abrupt catastrophic change. It is reasonable to have concerns given humanities growth and consumption habits. Urban farming can conserve water and is very efficient, for example aquaponics is becoming more popular and well know.
1.8 / 5 (5) Mar 29, 2016
Did not have to read past the first sentence to know this is the same utter rubbish that has been repeated for decades. It has only fooled the ignorant before and will only fool the same again.
3 / 5 (2) Mar 29, 2016
"The rate of photosynthesis in crops like soy and rice is determined by two factors," There in lies their level of their expertise. Nothing grows without phosphorus. Currently 95% of the world food supply is dependent on NPK. Estimates based on actual economically viable rock phosphate production conclude there is about 30 years left. After that rock phosphates will become increasing expensive as ores become more dilute and yields per unit energy and investment less. Additionally the processing of both phosphates and potassium are petro-chemical dependent. Petro-chemical economics are dependent on the current scale of the petroleum industry which is coincidentally scheduled to become economically infeasible - in about 30 years. Once the transportation petroleum industry is no longer needed - the costs of producing petro-chemicals will rise dramatically as the costs of the global petroleum industry are no longer supported by transportation There won't be an additional green revolution.
Da Schneib
3.7 / 5 (3) Mar 29, 2016
When people start starving they're not going to be real interested in testing and government agencies.

Next up to become extinct by starvation: the anti-genetic-engineering idiots.
1 / 5 (1) Mar 29, 2016
Take a look at Dr. Dana Cordell's works (http://www.slides...arcity). Here are some excerpts from one paper: Cordell & Neset, 2013 5. GEOPOLITICAL SCARCITY: REMAINING RESERVES Distribution of World Phosphate Rock Reserves - Morocco: 70% in Western Sahara which Morocco which occupies Western Sahara (contrary to UN resolutions), China: 27% of worlds reported reserves; who imposed a 135% export tariff in 2008 which was stopped in 2011. All farmers need phosphorus, yet just 5 countries control around 85% of the worlds remaining phosphate rock reserves. India, Australia, EU: all dependent on imports (vulnerable to price fluctuations and supply disruptions) US: previously world's largest producer, consumer, importer, exporter. Now has ~ 25 years left of its own reserves. The US now imports more than half of its NPK ingredients.
5 / 5 (2) Mar 30, 2016
Dug - there is disagreement about the phosphate situation - - but even given the worst case scenario - we do have options - http://www.slate....ure.html Small scale - intensive organic agriculture looks like a good option to me - which will prevent soil depletion - and simply recycle the nutrients.
5 / 5 (3) Mar 30, 2016
The history of life is long periods of stability punctuated with abrupt catastrophic change. It is reasonable to have concerns given humanities growth and consumption habits. Urban farming can conserve water and is very efficient, for example aquaponics is becoming more popular and well know.

We could also look at better distribution and cutting waste.

In the end it will be like with the energy revolution happening now: Nations will have to learn to be largely self sufficient with what they produce or they run the risk of having to buy at exorbitant prices on the world markets.

(Getting a hold of exploding population is also something that will eventually have to happen. It just can't go on indefinitely with the expectation that "science will figure it out how to feed x billion more people")
not rated yet Mar 30, 2016
greenonions - Actually, there is almost no disagreement of the well informed about phosphate scarcity. Most dissenting opinions don't understand the limits that the natural phosphorous cycle imposes on global food production - and or the scales involved. Once organic phosphates are tied up in soil minerals it is centuries before they become available again. Composting and organic food production all assume bioavailable inputs from NPK produced wastes and petroleum. Remove those inputs - we're back to the 1800s. Humans haven't depended on the natural phosphorus cycle in food prod. since before the ind. rev. = NPK. The natural phosphorus cycle in the absence of a literally free energy to force it (recycle/regenerate bio-available organic phosphates) = food for less than two billion people. Fusion or some other much cheaper than fossil fuels (I know of none) could delay the current 30 year energy/phosphate collapse window, until the next critical resource or enviro impacts limits us.
3.7 / 5 (3) Mar 30, 2016
Actually, there is almost no disagreement of the well informed about phosphate scarcity.
Not something I have personally done much reading on - but a quick google search tells me you are wrong.

5 / 5 (2) Mar 30, 2016
You know, if you go back to what the article is about, it has nothing to say about phospates or the supposed collapse of the "phosphorus cycle" which is total BS anyway. No the article simply warns of a food crisis in or near 2050 from: 1) Over population, and 2) Global warming! In other words, the article is simply the "Soylent Green" scenario backed up with numbers.

According to data I've read, the planet will be unstainable when the population of man reaches 11 billion. By 2050 we should see global average temperatures at least 1C higher than today's global average (perhaps more). Crops will die in excessive heat. So do fish, cattle, livestock and everything else we use for nutrition. So yeah, it is going to be very much a "SOYLENT GREEN" future for mankind near 2050.

1 / 5 (1) Apr 02, 2016
Better learn how to do it without any GMO crops, pesticides or non-organic fertilizer!

Truth be told: doesn't matter because we haven't developed any sort of asteroid deflection system. We're about due for one to hit between this moment and 2040 which should solve the overlying problem of overpopulation.
not rated yet Apr 02, 2016
Soy and wheat are very high in lectins. GMO wheat and soy have magnified lectins. Eventually, lectins damage the villi so badly that leaky gut syndrome occurs. Then shiyte mixes directly into the blood causing IBS, Chron's, colitis, thyroiditis, fibromyalgia, arthritis, hronic inflammation, insulin resistance, impaired digestion, immune suppression, increased allergies, and senility

Great future for Western debt slaves
5 / 5 (1) Apr 02, 2016
I've been working for several years in a hydroponics research facility. Yes, we get poked at every day from people wanting to grow cannabis . . . but that's not what we do here. Our primary goal has been and is the production of an extremely diverse range of crops, with very short growth cycles, under controlled conditions, using 10% (or less) actual water consumption that traditional soil based farming methods, and a minute fraction of the actual nutrient chemistries commonly used.

In the larger scheme of things, planetary overpopulation is the #1 challenge facing all of civilization. Either we can collectively recognize and respond accordingly, or an involuntary, planetary scale "correction" will take place, and that correction will likely be extremely unpleasant for many.

Having said that, there are technical answers for generating high quality food and medicinal crops which can and are being adopted.
1 / 5 (1) Apr 03, 2016
There are sections of our global population that are resistant to limiting their own population thru birth control. Unfortunately much of this resistance is religious based. For example, polygamous Muslims breed at double the rate of any group in the world. To limit our own childbearing in order to 'move over for Islam in the interest of global survival' would be to hand the world over to the Muslims on a tarnished silver serving dish. Point of fact, we are NOT going to ever get Islam to limit itself from breeding the world into starvation....they would rather ruin the world as long as the last human to survive the coming global holocaust was likely Muslim. Only a huge nuclear war would stop them. To NOT stop them would doom us to our earthly cage forever. As soon as they obtain nuclear weapons in quantity, extremists among them will find a way to use them. Malthusian failure is inevitable. Only pestilence or draconian measures have a chance.

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