Aussie team’s plan to genetically engineer food plants 50 per cent bigger

As extreme droughts become more common in Australia, grains and vegetables we take for granted will struggle to adapt. But scientists believe they’ve cracked the code and created a process to genetically engineer crops to absorb more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere so they’ll need less irrigation and fertilizer.

By modifying the plants, modeling suggests they will become bigger — anything from 2 per cent to a whopping 50 per cent in biomass. And this could also result in higher yields, more money for farmers, and lower prices at the supermarket.

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Dr Ben Long from the University of Newcastle has been working with colleagues from Australian National University on the concept for 15 years.

His team’s experiments begin with extracting a single element from blue green algae that gives it a superior ability to extract and process carbon dioxide (CO2). This process is so effective it’s responsible for around 13 per cent of all carbon dioxide that’s captured in the atmosphere every year.

The next step in the plan is to build this enzyme into crop plants like rice, wheat and soy beans.

Some engineering was done in poplar trees and had a similar kind of outcome. That system showed a 30 to 50 per cent increase in small plant growth.Dr Ben Long

The genes have been extracted from a type of algae called cyanobium, which was first collected in marine mudflats in the United States in the 1970s. Because the availability of carbon dioxide is variable in that environment, it adapted to the problem by evolving a concentrating mechanism.

Plants like wheat, which is used in pasta, could be genetically altered so they produce a higher yield. Source: Getty (File Image)

“For our purposes as agricultural biologists, we want plants to be able to turn all of the CO2 that they capture into food that we eat,” Long explained.

“But plants haven’t really evolved to maximize CO2 capture the way we would like them to. As long as they can generate seeds for the next generation, that’s really their raison d’etre, if you like. But we want them to produce as much food as we can get them to make.”

The scientists’ focus has been creating larger crop yields, and they’ve experimented with tobacco because it can be genetically modified easily. But they also believe it could be used to lock in and store carbon dioxide captured from the atmosphere.

“We see that there’s potential to put this kind of technology into tree species. This should enable them to capture CO2 more rapidly and deposit that carbon they’ve captured into timber,” Long said. “It could be deposited in wood that we could use for construction.”

The research has been published in the journal Science Advances.

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