Fighting climate change with genetically engineered food
Climate change is getting more and more serious as 2021 saw deadly heat waves surge across Western North America, killing hundreds. The heatwave broke records such as the highest recorded temperature in Canada at 121.3 °F (49.6 °C), and has caused issues such as drought, wildfires and even resulted in issues with crops.
This isn’t exactly unusual. Extreme weather has caused crop failures in the past, such as heat surges in India during the 1960s. The fact is, the human impact on the world is causing drastic changes, and we need to adapt.
Luckily for us (in a way), geneticists have worked on engineering plants to better repair heat damage. This means we lose fewer yields to the extreme temperatures brought on by climate change. So far, the genetic modification has worked on tobacco, rice, as well as a mustard plant that is currently the most common plant model for this type of engineering. However, the more interesting part concerns something different than surviving high temperatures.
In this blog, we’re going to be exploring heat resistant crops and why they’re necessary, as well as the additional effect that the genetic engineering has had on the plants.
Why do we need heat resistant crops?
Plants live a dangerous life out in the sun, where they convert light into glucose for energy. However, harmful chemical by-products are also created during the photosynthesis that damage the cells which are responsible for photosynthesis. What’s more, the hotter the weather, the more likely the plant will be damaged as different reactions accelerate and slow down.
This is why plants are prone to ruining in extreme weather, just as in the case in 1960s India. And as the effects of climate change continue to worsen, we can expect more and more situations similar to this.
Or rather, we would have.
Geneticists have engineered crops so that the D1 – a key subunit in a complex of proteins called photosystem II – is made by a nuclear gene. This means photosynthesis takes place in the cytoplasm instead of the chloroplast, where it is more protected from the harmful chemical by-products.
The team behind this found that a modified Arabidopsis (a plant related to cabbage and mustard) could survive extreme heat – up to 8.5 hours in their lab at 41 °C – where most of the control plants died.
The pleasant surprise
Creating heat resistant plants was the initial goal with this engineering, but the results didn’t stop there.
In 2017 when the weather in Shanghai reached over 36 °C for almost three weeks, geneticists found that modified rice planted in test plots yielded 8-10% more grain than control plots. This doesn’t just combat food growth in climate change, but also issues regarding food supply and demand.
What’s more, plants that went through this engineering saw a shocking surge in yield in ordinary weather. Tobacco’s rate of photosynthesis grew by almost 50%, and rice yielded up to 20% more grain. This is due to the more efficient photosynthesis caused by the nuclear gene.
This is a huge advancement for genetically engineered crops, which bodes well for future engineering and will help tackle upcoming issues.
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