A study led by professors from the University of Chicago, Peking University and Guizhou University found that Manipulating RNA can allow plants to yield dramatically more crops, and increase drought tolerance.
By adding a gene encoding for a protein called FTO to both rice and potato plants, it increased their yield by 50% in field tests. The plants grew larger, produced longer root systems, tolerated drought stress better, and increased their rate of photosynthesis.
“The change really is dramatic,” said University of Chicago Prof. Chuan He, “What’s more, it worked with almost every type of plant we tried it with so far, and it’s a very simple modification to make.”
“This really provides the possibility of engineering plants to potentially improve the ecosystem as global warming proceeds,” said Prof. He, “We rely on plants for many, many things– everything from wood, food, and medicine, to flowers and oil– and this potentially offers a way to increase the stock material we can get from most plants.”
In order to increase crop production and withstand climate change and population growth, many studies have been conducted, but only to result in small changes. Thanks to this research using RNA, the results could be dramatically better.
The RNA cell is able to regulate which parts of the DNA blueprint get expressed. It does so by placing chemical markers onto RNA to modulate which proteins are made and how many. Professors He and Guifang Jia began to wonder how it affected plant biology.
They focused on a protein called FTO, which deletes chemical marks on RNA. The scientists knew it worked on RNA to affect cell growth in humans and other animals, so they tried implanting the gene for it into rice plants.
The rice plants grew three times more rice under laboratory conditions. Out in real field tests, the plants grew 50% more mass and yielded 50% more rice. They grew longer roots, photosynthesized more efficiently, and could better withstand stress from drought. The scientists repeated the experiments with potato plants. The results were the same, which suggests an exciting promise of universality.
Additional experiments revealed that FTO started working early in the plant’s development, increasing the quantity of biomass it produced. The scientists believe that FTO controls a process known as m6A, which is a key modification of RNA, by erasing m6A RNA to mute some of the signals that tell plants to slow down their growth.
“It seems that plants already have this layer of regulation, and all we did is tap into it,” He said. “So the next step would be to discover how to do it using the plant’s existing genetics.”
Prof. He believes the possibilities for uses are endless and could be applied to further more than crops.