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Research breakthrough creates crops that can grow 50% more potatoes, rice

Manipulating RNA can allow plants to yield dramatically more crops, as well as increasing drought tolerance, announced a group of scientists from the University of Chicago, Peking University and Guizhou University, according to a UChicago news release.

In initial tests, adding a gene encoding for a protein called FTO to both potato and rice plants increased their yield by 50% in field tests. The plants grew significantly larger, produced longer root systems and were better able to tolerate drought stress. Analysis also showed that the plants had increased their rate of photosynthesis.

“The change really is dramatic,” said University of Chicago Prof. Chuan He, who together with Prof. Guifang Jia at Peking University led the research. “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 researchers initially focused on the protein called FTO, which is the first known protein that erases chemical marks on RNA. Overall, the modified plants produced significantly more RNA than control plants.

The process described in a research paper involves using an animal FTO gene in a plant. But once scientists fully understand this growth mechanism, Prof He thinks there could be alternate ways to get the same effect. 

“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,” he said.

Source: University of Chicago. Full release here
Cover photo: Above, the potato yield from unmodified plants. Below, the yield from plants with the RNA modification. Courtesy of Yu et al.
Citation: RNA demethylation increases the yield and biomass of rice and potato plants in field trials.” Yu et al, Nature Biotechnology, July 22, 2021.

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