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Important gene discovery could help crops grow much faster

Researchers have identified a gene that, if modified, could result in important food crops growing significantly quicker.

It is estimated that more than one-quarter of the world’s population suffers from malnutrition, with almost 1bn chronically hungry. To make matter worse, it is estimated that overall food production will need to increase by as much as 70pc between now and 2050 to meet demand for almost 10bn people.

With current demand for food vastly outweighing supply now and predicted to do so in the future, scientists are trying to find ways of boosting food production significantly by tapping into its very DNA. In a new paper published to Nature Plants, researchers from the University of Cambridge and the University of Bordeaux have done just that.

They revealed the discovery of a gene that they hope could significantly reduce the time it takes to grow some of the world’s biggest food staples, but within sustainable limits. Ultimately, it could allow for plant biologists to focus nutrients to the part of the plant eaten by humans, such as the seeds and fruits.

The novel gene discovered by the researchers is called the phloem unloading modulator (PLM), which affects nutrient tracking by altering the channels connecting neighbouring plant cells called plasmodesmata. These nanoscale membrane-lined channels traverse the cell wall barrier to link plant cells together and enable the transfer of essential substances

An urgent need

In the study, the researchers showed that Arabidopsis thaliana – a member of the mustard family – missing the PLM gene releases more substances from its transporting tissue at the tips of its roots.

“We found that mutating PLM relieves a trafficking bottleneck that was previously reducing the outward movement of nutrients from the vascular system to the rapidly growing tissues in the roots,” said lead author of the study, Dr Dawei Yan.

“Removing PLM gene activity could enable plants to more rapidly and efficiently transport nutrients to where they are needed.”

The researchers are now attempting to understand how and why plasmodesmata with something called the cytoplasmic sleeve have higher rates of trafficking. This will play into the search for environmentally friendly ways to boost crop production.

Research team lead Prof Yrjö Helariutta added: “There is an urgent need to develop crops with increased nutrient efficiency, both to reduce the use of fertilisers and to increase the yield of crops.”

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