Plant ageing gene is key to food supply

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 2nd December 2013

Breakthrough science with the ability to control the life-cycle of plants could be the solution to increasing food production as population exceeds nine billion by 2050, according to researchers from the University of Munster and the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology in Germany.

Current estimates by the United Nations (UN) suggest that global agricultural production needs to increase by about 70 per cent between 2005 and 2050 to satisfy the growing demand for food and agricultural products.

The German research has identified key regulatory genes in plants that “switch off” flowering and allow plants to live longer, grow faster and become bigger. The breakthrough was made after discovering a mutant tobacco plant that showed permanent vegetative growth, no ageing, evergreen leaves and late or no flowering.

Study revealed special protein

Analysis of the tobacco plant revealed that it has a special protein that inhibits the flowering process. The result is a plant that can grow up to eight metres, compared to a normal size of 1.5 metres. It also has around 120 leaves, compared to 20 in a normal variety.

Researchers said the discovery creates a new approach to farming and is an alternative to Genetically Modified (GM) foods and traditional methods of improving crop varieties. The chemical engineering potential of the findings earned the researchers a Highly Commended at the Institution of Chemical Engineer’s (IChemE) Annual Awards for Innovation and Excellence in early November 2013.

“The UN estimates that about 80 per cent of required increased food supply will need to come from improvements in productivity, such as higher crop yields,” said David Brown, IChemE’s Chief Executive. “Pressures on land use are also predicted to increase with a net expansion of arable land of about 70 million hectares,” he said.

“The teams at Munster and Fraunhofer are helping to meet this challenge with their innovative work, which creates a new way to produce economically stable food supplies as population growth puts increasing pressure on valuable resources,” Mr Brown said.

IChemE said the development is also significant in other ways.

“The cultivation of high-biomass crops could be a valuable source of sustainable energy and help reduce tensions over land use between biofuel and food production,” Mr Brown said.

Plant ageing gene could be key to increasing food production