N-Fixation, Photosynthetic Efficiency & Computer-Designed Plants — Potential Step Changes for Crop Yields

When it comes to potential “step changes” toward higher global crop yields, there are several areas where we could see major developments in the next decade or two, says the of the Saskatoon-based Global Institute for Food Security.

The two big targets, as Maurice Moloney shared at the 2016 Agriculture Biosciences Innovation Conference in Fargo, ND, are nitrogen fixation in non-legumes and improved photosynthetic efficiency in food crops.

“Crop plants are actually not that efficient at photosynthesis. We do very well growing them, but we could make bigger and better plants if we could increase photosynthetic efficiency by a few percent,” he explains.

There have been several recent breakthroughs showing ways to get more carbon dioxide to the active site of carbon fixation, he notes.

“If we can do that, you get more C02 into the plant, you get a bigger plant. Then the plant breeder just has to make sure that bigger plant makes more seeds.”

While there’s ambitious work being done on nitrogen fixation, he says it’s likely still a 15-year time horizon before we see true N-fixing in a crop like wheat.

“Having said that, there are things on the road which are intermediate forms of biological nitrogen fixation. There’s a lot of interest right now in using naturally-occurring microorganisms to improve plant growth. One of the things we could do is use naturally occurring microorganisms that fix nitrogen and use those in some association with the plant. That’s possible on the road to this 15 year time horizon.”

Both N-fixation and improved photosynthetic efficiency would not only boost food production, but could also mitigate climate change by absorbing more carbon dioxide and reducing nitrous oxide emissions, he points out.

In the longer term, Moloney says advancements in genomic mapping and raw computing power are opening the door to algorithmically-defined plants — in other words, plants designed by computers.

“When you know the whole genetic structure of the plant, you are actually in a position where you can predict things, things that might happen if you change things in a certain way. That has a design element associated with it,” he explains. “We believe we will eventually be able to design a plant from scratch…”

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