IDEA FRIDAY: Supercharged Photosynthesis: Could it be a Solution for the Sporadic Hunger Games in Kenya?

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  • 4 years ago
  • Posted: February 20, 2015 at 5:15 pm

For your Friday dose of a tech idea, we will be looking at highly advanced photosynthesis; we are pretty much hacking into every biological process there is, why not insert ourselves into the process of manufacturing of food by plants, right? Last December, geneticists announced that they’d engineered rice plants to carry out photosynthesis in a more efficient way—much as corn and many fast-growing weeds do. The advance, by a team of researchers in the Philippines and the United Kingdom, removes a big obstacle from scientists’ efforts to dramatically increase the production of rice and, potentially, wheat. It comes at a time when yields of those two crops, which together feed nearly 40 percent of the world, are dangerously leveling off, making it increasingly difficult to meet rapidly growing food demand.

Paul Quick at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines and Julian Hibberd, a professor at the University of Cambridge in the U.K. achieved the feat by introducing five key C4 photosynthesis genes into a rice plant and educated that the plant can capture carbon (IV) oxide via the same mechanism seen in plants with the supercharged form of photosynthesis. “It’s the first time we’ve seen evidence of the C4 cycle in rice, so it’s very exciting,” says Thomas Brutnell, a researcher at the Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis. Brutnell is part of the C4 Rice Consortium headed by IRRI, which receives funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Although, it was not directly involved in the most recent breakthrough.

So what in blazes is this Super-Charged Photosynthesis?
The supercharged process, called C4 photosynthesis (mind-blowing isn’t it, get it, mind-blowing), augments plants’ growth by capturing carbon dioxide and focusing, it in specialized cells in the leaves. This allows the photosynthetic process to operate much more effectively. It’s the reason corn and sugarcane grow so productively; if C4 rice ever comes about, it will tower over conventional rice within a few weeks of planting. Researchers compute that engineering C4 photosynthesis into rice and wheat could increase yields per hectare by roughly 50 percent; alternatively, it would be possible to use far less water and fertilizer to produce the same amount of food.

The Foreign Agricultural Service, Nairobi chapter forecasts corn production in MY 2014/2015 to remain same as the previous year and modest increases in wheat and rice. Consumption of the commodities will increase creating a supply deficit that will be offset by imports. Imports into Kenya are subject to external tariffs that range from 10 percent for wheat, 35 percent for rice and 50 percent for corn. Minimal exports of the commodities occur through cross-border trade.
The Government of Kenya (GOK) has initiated measures to bring down the cost of corn production by providing subsidized fertilizers to farmers.The Kenya Meteorological Department (KMD) has forecast adequate rains in the corn-growing areas. However, according to a collaborated report by the Tegemeo Institute of Egerton University, production in MY2014/2015 will be hampered by inadequate supply of seed for the popular hybrid corn varieties (KS6213 and KS614).The subsidized fertilizer has also not been adequate. Additionally, the onset of the March/April 2014 rains came earlier than expected and most farmers were not ready for planting. Production is also constrained by underlying drawbacks such as soil acidification due to year
-In-year out usage of Diamonium Phosphate (DAP) fertilizer. As a long term measure, GOK has initiated an ambitious plan to put about 1 million hectares under irrigation in the Galana/Kulalu areas of the North Coast. No production is anticipated from this project in MY 2014/2015. Why does the government and the local Agricultural apparatus always think that fertilizers are the panacea? The solution is SMART agriculture, which means you leverage the intellectual and technological capital to achieve food sustainability, which means that the government should invest heavily in Research and Development. And this is just corn; we haven’t talked about rice that was the focus of the study. Corn, as you would note in the outset, has supercharged photosynthesis.
Recent years has seen Kenya experience food shortages arising from declining farm productivity owing to low fertility levels, high input costs, and unreliable weather in the face of a rising population. Being one of stable foods in Kenya, rice productivity is a major concern. Comprehending rice production in relation to weather changes is of great importance to boost food productivity.

The system of rice intensification (SRI) offers the opportunity to improve food security through increased rice productivity by changing the management of the plants, soil, water, and nutrients while reducing external inputs like fertilizer and herbicides. The system proposes the use of single, very young seedling with wider spacing, intermittent wetting, and drying and use of mechanical weeders which also aerates the soil and enhances soil organic matter (Source: International Journal of Agronomy-CERES Model). Great, what about advancing the photosynthetic process?

Crop growth simulation models provide the means to qualify the effects of climate, soil, and management on crop growth, productivity, and sustainability of agricultural production. These tools can reduce the need for expensive and time-consuming field trials and could be used to analyze yield gaps in various crops including rice.

However…

Despite the genetic alterations, the changed rice plants still rely primarily on their usual form of photosynthesis. To get them to switch over absolutely, researchers need to engineer the plants to produce specialized cells in a precise arrangement: one set of cells to capture the carbon dioxide, surrounding another set of cells that concentrate it. This the distinctive wreath anatomy found in the leaves of C4 plants. However, scientists still don’t know all the genes involved in producing these cells and suspect that they could number in the dozens.

Fresh genome editing methods that allow scientists to precisely modify parts of plant genomes could help solve the problem. Using conventional breeding to manipulate more than one or two genes is nightmarish at best, let alone trying to engineer a plant with dozens of gene changes/manipulations. Genome editing could make it possible to change a large number of genes easily.

Nevertheless, it can be a more than a decade before even simple crop modifications reach farmers, not to mention changes as complex as re-engineering how plants carry out photosynthesis. But once scientists solve the C4 puzzle in a plant such as rice, they hope, the method can be extended to dramatically super-size production of many other crops, including wheat, potatoes, tomatoes, apples, and soybean, now do you see the potential of this breakthrough technology!

Whichever way, the future of Kenya’s agriculture lies in knowledge; Old-guard methods remain the butter of the past, here in the 21st century we do things differently, like fly super-fast jets and trying to replicate our anatomical selves, so join the bandwagon, do not be left behind when the rapture progress manifests in all its glory.

What is your opinion on the topic?
Stefan Wolf
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