Not the Same Old Genetic Modification: How Fine-Tuning Gene Expression in Plants Might Feed the World

By Julianna LeMieux — Apr 06, 2016
With the Earth's population expected to reach eight billion by 2036, new solutions to an anticipated food shortage are becoming more critical. A group at Arizona State University recently discovered that increasing the expression of a gene found in most plants makes them able to grow in more varied environmental conditions.

shutterstock_351916232With the number of people on this Earth expected to reach eight billion within the next 20 years – there is a birth every eight seconds in the United States alone – one of the questions “cropping” up more and more is how are we going to produce enough food for everyone?

There are many obstacles to increasing crop production, which include increasing temperatures, drought, limited space and salinization, or increased salt content in soil. With these challenges, new solutions that result in increased food production are becoming more critical. Also, existing solutions, such as increasing the amount of fertilizer used, can have negative effects on both the plants and the environment.

Using an innovative approach, researchers have developed a way to “turn up” a gene in plants so that they are not only better able to grow in more varied environmental conditions, but can use water and nutrients more effectively during photosynthesis.

The overexpression of the gene type 1 H+-PPase results in different benefits to the plant, including enhanced drought resistance and being able to grow in higher salt conditions. Additionally, there is an increase in the biomass of shoots and roots. More roots means stronger growth with less water and less fertilizer. Lastly, and of utmost importance, is that this gene is found widely across many different types of plants, and these benefits have been seen in primary crops such as rice, barley, corn, wheat and cotton.

This work presents a new way of thinking about genetic modification, showing that multiple different traits of an organism can be dramatically altered by tweaking how much protein is made from an existing gene – or in other words, changing the gene’s level of “expression.”

Although there has to be some manipulation in order to do this, there are no new genes introduced into the genome and no new proteins produced by the organism – a watered-down version of a more traditional genetic modification that even the harshest anti-GMO activist would have a hard time criticizing.

Citation: Roberto A. Gaxiola, Kamesh Regmi, Kendal D. Hirschi, Moving On Up: H+-PPase Mediated Crop Improvement, Trends in Biotechnology (in press, corrected proof) DOI:10.1016/j.tibtech.2015.12.016