Researchers from the John Innes Centre and Nanjing Agricultural University have identified a protein that can help plants regulate their cell pH – a seemingly small modification that can boost rice crop yields by 50%.
Rice is one of the major crops in the world, along with corn and wheat (also under the microscope of science to increase food security).
As a crop that feeds almost 50% of the world’s population, it is more than understandable that scientists are interested in improving rice. Previous work in this area include the now famous GMO initiative for ‘golden rice’, as well as projects to make it more productive and eco-friendly.
Now, researchers from the John Innes Centre (UK) and Nanjing Agricultural University (China) may have found another important part of the puzzle to turbo-charge rice. Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, their work shows that the overexpression of a particular protein could boost production yield by up to 54%.
For rice, one of its major challenges is to get the right balance of nitrate or ammonium ions from the soil. These ions are the source of nitrogen – an element essential to synthesize aminoacids and then proteins.
Upsetting this balance affects the pH of plant cells – too much ammonium and plant cells become alkaline; too much nitrate causes them to become acidic. Inadequate pH means the plants have a harder time getting nutrients and growing.
The research team studied a gene involved in the transport of nitrate in plant cells, OsNRT2.3. This gene makes two slightly different versions of the protein (OsNRT2.3a and OsNRT2.3b).
In a part of the rice, the cellular production of the OsNRT2.3b version was boosted by inserting copies of a gene directly coding for this protein (with cDNA, a sort of reverse template for any protein) in the cell plant. These plants turned out to be much better at controlling the pH in their cells by switching nitrate transport on or off.
With this new pH switch, the plants are able to take up much more nitrogen, iron and phosphorus – so they grow faster.
The study was funded by the BBSRC (also backed projects like the epigenomics of wheat and oil-producing yeast) and the Chinese government (which is also eyeing one of the few players in agrochemicals through state-owned ChemChina).
The resulting new technology has been patented by PBL, a technology transfer company with the John Innes Centre, and 3 companies are already working in 6 different crops overexpressing OsNRT2.3b.
Such a yield increase in such a staple food is pretty crazy. While it still has to be brought to the fields, the speedy transition to the industry should speak for the excitement around this new crop technology.