One of the most important tasks of the 21st century is how to sustainably bring a rising and richer global population with less water and fertilizer to a shrinking area, despite stagnant yields, pest and disease threats, and a changing climate.
"This year's meeting is about science beyond the bounds of science – the idea of a meeting is to highlight research that goes beyond scientific and knowledge boundaries, with the ultimate goal of crossing geographical borders and reaching small farmers in Africa," said Lisa Ainsworth, a scientist with the US Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research (USDA-ARS) and Assistant Professor of Plant Biology at the University of Illinois. Recently, Ainsworth received the Prize of the National Academy of Sciences in Food and Agriculture in 2019.
Lecturer Donald Ort, Robert Emerson, professor of plant biology and plant science at Carl R. Woese Institute of Genomic Biology in Illinois, will address the global food security challenge and the recent breakthrough Science (see the original rapporteur), which boosted crop growth by 40 percent by creating an abbreviation for a defect affecting most food crops.
"Plants have to make three key things to produce the food we eat: capturing sunlight, using this energy to produce plant biomass, and sending as much biomass as possible into yields such as corn or starch potatoes," said Ort. "In the last century, breeders maximized the first and third crops, leaving us a challenge to improve the process by fixing sunlight and carbon dioxide – called photosynthesis – to increase crop growth to meet the requirements of the 21st century."
This major work is part of the RIPE (RIPE) project, which is engineered to make photosynthesis more efficient with the aim of sustainably increasing global food productivity with the FFAR's Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and government departments for International Development (DFID).
"Soil plants have evolved with a biochemical defect where the photosynthetic enzyme often traps oxygen instead of carbon dioxide, which requires a complicated and costly process called photorejuvenation that will alleviate this problem," said Ort, who is also the deputy director of the RIPE project. "Crops like soybeans and wheat waste account for more than 30 percent of the energy they generate from photosynthesis that deal with this problem, but modeling has suggested that photorespiratory abbreviations could be designed to help the plant conserve energy and re-invest it in growth."
They lent the algae and pumpkin genes to create three alternative pathways to replace the skillful native path of photorejuvenation in tobacco, using the model plant to demonstrate the concept of proof before scientists move technology into food crops, which are much more difficult and time consuming for engineers and test. Now, this work attempts to overcome the yields of other crops including soy, cowpea, rice, potatoes, tomatoes and aubergine.
"It's incredible to imagine calorie loss for photorejuvenation every year around the world," said Ort. "Renewing even part of these calories would be a huge success in our plant, bringing us 9.7 billion by 2050."
Of course, warns Ort, it will take 15 years or longer for these technologies to be transformed into food crops and a regulatory approval for distribution to farmers is achieved. When that day comes, RIPE and its sponsors are committed to ensuring that small farmers, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, will have free access to this technology.
Other interviews in this section will include "Discoveries to improve nitrogen fixation in cereals", Jean-Michel Ane University of Wisconsin-Madison, and "Genome Editing for Sustainable Crop Improvement" for basic feed for crops Rebecca Bart, Assistant Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, whose work also supports the Gates Foundation. The meeting will end with a panel discussion on how agricultural science goes beyond traditional disciplines.
In addition, two leading IGB plant scientists will be listed as members of AAAS: Andrew Leakey is a professor of plant biology and field sciences in Illinois, who studies the responses of plants to climate change as well as the development of crops that are more dry tolerant. Ray Ming is a professor of plant biology and a specialist in plant genomics and genital chromosome development, which could help to improve papaya production.