Simple RNA tweak boosts potato and rice yields by 50 percent


Food security is a major potential problem, especially in the face of climate change. Now, researchers have shown that manipulating RNA in plants can drastically boost the amount of food they produce, and make them more resistant to drought conditions.

At its most base level, the team inserted a single gene called FTO into potato and rice plants. The resulting plants were much more efficient photosynthesizers, meaning they grew much larger and produced much higher yields – three times more produce in the lab, and 50 percent more in the field. They also grew longer root systems that helped them tolerate drought conditions better.

“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 team had previously found that the FTO protein, encoded by the FTO gene, erased chemical markers on RNA, which in turn can regulate the expression of DNA. In the case of these plants, wiping off those RNA markers reduces the signals that tell the plants to slow down their growth, right from an early stage in their development. As such, the modified plants produce far more RNA than control plants, which translates to higher biomasses.

A comparison of the yields from an unmodified potato plant (top) to a modified plant (bottom)
A comparison of the yields from an unmodified potato plant (top) to a modified plant (bottom)

In its current form, the process involved inserting an FTO gene from an animal into the plant. But future versions could bypass this step to avoid the controversial GMO label, the team says.

“This is a brand new type of approach, one that could be different from GMO and CRISPR gene editing; this technique allows us to “flip a switch” in the plants at an early point in development, which continues to affect the plant’s food production even after we remove the switch,” says He. “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.”

Importantly, the technique had similar results in both rice and potato plants, which aren’t particularly closely related. That suggests that it could work in a wide range of plants, improving their resistance to the challenge of climate change.

“This really provides the possibility of engineering plants to potentially improve the ecosystem as global warming proceeds,” says He. “We rely on plants for many, many things – everything from wood, food, and medicine, to flowers and oil – and this potentially offers a way to increase the stock material we can get from most plants.”

The research was published in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

Source: University of Chicago