The Van Trump Report

RNA Tweak Creates Drought Tolerant Plants AND Can Help Increase Yields

Researchers used an animal gene linked to obesity in humans to create some “fat” plants that grew two times larger than normal with yields as much as 50% higher. As an added bonus, the plants also produced longer root systems, making them better able to withstand drought.

In the lab, the RNA tweak allowed plants to grow three times as large while also increasing yields by three times. When they tried it out in real field tests, the vegetables grew 50 percent more mass and yielded 50 percent more. In addition to growing significantly larger, the plants were more efficient photosynthesizers and produced longer root systems. “The change really is dramatic,” says Chuan He, co-lead researcher on the study. “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.”  

The animal gene used is called “FTO” and it was inserted into potato and rice plants. The team of researchers from the U.S. and China had previously found that the FTO protein, which is encoded by the FTO gene, could erase certain chemical markers on RNA. For those not familiar, RNA molecules “read” DNA, then make proteins to carry out the “instructions.” In 2011, He’s lab actually discovered that RNA doesn’t blindly carry out DNA blueprints, it can also regulate which parts get expressed. It does so by placing chemical markers onto RNA to modulate which proteins are made and how many. FTO is the first known protein that can erase those markers.

In the potato and rice plants, these particular markers tell the plants to slow down their growth, starting from a the earliest stages of development. Wiping off those RNA markers thus reduces or “muffles” that signal, allowing the modified plants to produce far more RNA than control plants, which translates to higher biomass.

The current process of inserting the FTO gene from animals into plants would be classified as a genetically modified organism (GMO) but the researchers say they can simplify the process even further and avoid that regulatory headache. As Chuan He explains, “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.” In other words, it would be a brand new approach to current GMO and CRISPR gene editing techniques.

Researchers are hopeful the new technology could potentially help address food insecurity at a global scale. It could also be important for responding to climate change in and increasingly water-scarce world. Beyond just producing food, it could be used to engineer grasses that can withstand drought threatened areas or produce trees with longer roots, making them less likely to be toppled during strong storms. He says early field studies show the technolgoy can be scaled up and the team is hoping to work with academia and the private sector to further understand and widely apply the new technology. If you’re interested in learning more, the full study is HERE. (Sources: Nature, University of Chicago, Genetic Literacy Project)

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