Manipulating RNA could increase rice and potato crop yields by over 50%, according to a group of researchers from the University of Chicago, Peking University, and Guizhou University. The research was published in Nature Biotechnology.
Climate change and a growing global population mean that scientists are trying to find ways to increase crop production. Processes behind increasing crop production are usually complex and only provide incremental changes. In this new paper, however, the researchers outline a comparably simple method to boost food availability.
RNA are molecules that read DNA. In 2011, however, University of Chicago Professor Chuan He, and Professor Guifang Jia at Peking University discovered that RNA also modulates which proteins to make and how many. The scientists thus began to wonder how the process could affect plant biology.
Together, they chose to investigate a protein called FTO, which is known to work on RNA to affect cell growth in humans and other animals. In experiments, they inserted the gene for FTO into rice plants. In doing so, they found that rice plants grew three times more rice under lab conditions.
In the field, the same plants grew 50% more rice than in normal conditions. These plants also grew longer roots, photosynthesized more effectively, and were more resistant to drought than current rice strains. The researchers saw the same results when experimenting on potatoes.
Further experiments found that FTO was able to boost the overall mass of plants by starting work early in the plant’s development. They suspect that FTO works by erasing m6A RNA and thus reducing signals telling plants to slow down their growth.
“This is a brand new type of approach, one that could be different from GMO and CRISPR gene editing; this technique allows us to “flip a switch” in the plants at an early point in development, which continues to affect the plant’s food production even after we remove the switch,” said He.
“It seems that plants already have this layer of regulation, and all we did is tap into it. So the next step would be to discover how to do it using the plant’s existing genetics.”
The researchers now hope to scale up their work to better understand how the process works and pave the way for its safe, widespread use. They add that they could perhaps use the RNA altering process to engineer grasses capable of withstanding drought as well as trees with longer roots that are more resistant to strong storms.