(p. A12) URBANA, Ill. — A decade ago, agricultural scientists at the University of Illinois suggested a bold approach to improve the food supply: tinker with photosynthesis, the chemical reaction powering nearly all life on Earth.
The idea was greeted skeptically in scientific circles and ignored by funding agencies. But one outfit with deep pockets, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, eventually paid attention, hoping the research might help alleviate global poverty.
Now, after several years of work funded by the foundation, the scientists are reporting a remarkable result.
Using genetic engineering techniques to alter photosynthesis, they increased the productivity of a test plant — tobacco — by as much as 20 percent, they said Thursday[November 17, 2016] in a study published by the journal Science. That is a huge number, given that plant breeders struggle to eke out gains of 1 or 2 percent with more conventional approaches.
The scientists have no interest in increasing the production of tobacco; their plan is to try the same alterations in food crops, and one of the leaders of the work believes production gains of 50 percent or more may ultimately be achievable. If that prediction is borne out in further research — it could take a decade, if not longer, to know for sure — the result might be nothing less than a transformation of global agriculture.
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“We’re here because we want to alleviate poverty,” said Katherine Kahn, the officer at the Gates Foundation overseeing the grant for the Illinois research. “What is it (p. A24) the farmers need, and how can we help them get there?”
One of the leaders of the research, Stephen P. Long, a crop scientist who holds appointments at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and at Lancaster University in England, emphasized in an interview that a long road lay ahead before any results from the work might reach farmers’ fields.
But Dr. Long is also convinced that genetic engineering could ultimately lead to what he called a “second Green Revolution” that would produce huge gains in food production, like the original Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, which transferred advanced agricultural techniques to some developing countries and led to reductions in world hunger.
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The work is, in part, an effort to secure the food supply against the possible effects of future climate change. If rising global temperatures cut the production of food, human society could be destabilized, but more efficient crop plants could potentially make the food system more resilient, Dr. Long said.
For the full story, see:
JUSTIN GILLIS. “Taking Aim at Hunger, By Altering Plant Genes.” The New York Times (Fri., NOV. 18, 2016): A12 & A24.
(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date NOV. 17, 2016, and has the title “With an Eye on Hunger, Scientists See Promise in Genetic Tinkering of Plants.”)
The Science article co-authored by Long, that is mentioned above, is:
Kromdijk, Johannes, Katarzyna Głowacka, Lauriebeth Leonelli, Stéphane T. Gabilly, Masakazu Iwai, Krishna K. Niyogi, and Stephen P. Long. “Improving Photosynthesis and Crop Productivity by Accelerating Recovery from Photoprotection.” Science 354, no. 6314 (Nov. 18, 2016): 857-61.