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  • Writer's pictureAllan Dyen-Shapiro

Tech that matters: those concerned with climate change-induced famine should pay attention to this

I like the New York Times. I like getting their free headlines in my inbox, and I like linking to my ten free articles per month. And my other ten when I use a different browser. And unlimited articles if I don't mind having a few special characters messed up when I use Safari and download a linked file. Did I say I was cheap?

What I like best about their coverage of science is they generally provide the links to the important articles. And with Sci-Hub, which keeps changing domains but still is providing free science to the world (see my previous blog post on them), I can get the .pdf. I came across an important one today that most of my readers probably missed. Twenty percent increased yield of tobacco from altering kinetics of nonphotochemical quenching! Yeah, with summaries like that, I can see why most of you went on to hear about the latest on the Presidential election aftermath.

But this is big news, so this blog post is one of my occasional series filling in the holes in science news mainstream reporters didn't understand. A twenty percent increase in yield is big news, because even a one percent increase in crop yields means many fewer people starve. The research used model plants, those in which proof of concept can be obtained quickly, and is as we speak moving into the world's major crop plants. The basic science was worked out in Arabidopsis, a plant I used to work on in my scientist days, a plant with no commercial relevance whatsoever, but in which you can put a foreign gene merely by dipping plants into a suspension of bacteria engineered to carry this gene and then letting the plants go to seed. The bacterial gene engineering can take as little as weeks. The genome of Arabidopsis has been sequenced, and extensive genetic, DNA and database resources have been developed and widely shared. However, it isn't exactly a crop plant. Getting a lot of leaf material requires growing an enormous amount under greenhouse or growth chamber conditions. By contrast, tobacco is a crop, and field trial conditions are well established. Putting foreign genes in isn't quite as easy--you have to grow masses of cells in tissue culture and then regenerate plantlets by manipulating plant hormone levels, and then grow those out in soil--and the growth cycle is longer. But it's certainly the easiest crop to put genes into and then see what happens in the field. So, don't be put off by the word tobacco--it's just for proof of concept. Parenthetically, ornamental tobacco, not the cultivar that gets smoked, can be beautiful

As for nonphotochemical quenching, well, let's start with photosynthesis. They told you in seventh grade biology that plants take light and carbon dioxide and produce food in the form of sugars. That's true, but photosynthesis also produces ATP, the stored energy that powers much of the business of living organisms, and NADPH and other reduced compounds. A reduced compound can be looked at as a store of electrons, a source of them when they are needed to build stuff in the cell. Making ATP and NADPH requires two photosystems, assemblages of proteins that take excited electrons from chlorophyll. (See, another word you remember from seventh grade--it's that green stuff in plant leaves.) In very high light, there isn't enough chlorophyll to productively use all the energy from the sun, so some of it ends up going into pathways that make damaging oxygen radicals. Plants have many ways of minimizing and dealing with this stuff, one of which is called nonphotochemical quenching, and it ultimately lets the energy be radiated off as heat. This quenching involves yellow-green pigments called xanthophylls. Remember back in seventh grade when all of the leaf pigments were separated out on paper and it made pretty colors? And it didn't work and got shmeared all over the place because no seventh grader has steady hands and your science teacher relied on crappy stuff from a kit rather than making it herself/himself? One of those pretty colors was the xanthophylls. They are actually many related chemicals, and one form of them, zeaxanthin, promotes nonphotochemical quenching.

In high light, there's a lot of photosynthesis making a lot of NADPH and a lot of nonphotochemical quenching. In lower light, nonphotochemical quenching shuts down, sparing the light for photosynthesis. However, one of the pathways of shutdown takes about fifteen minutes to happen. This pathway involves changing zeaxanthin into another form of xanthophyll. As light intensity changes a lot during the course of the day, these fifteen minute interludes add up and prevent a lot of photosynthesis. Less photosynthesis means less food production.

What the groups of Kris Nyogi at UC Berkeley (whose job interview I saw back when I was a post-doc there, and who was pretty damn impressive even before he started his first faculty job) and Stephen Long of U. of Illinois did was to use genetic engineering to make tobacoo make more of the enzymes that catalyze these changes to xanthophylls. Faster cycling eliminated that fifteen minute delay. The rub: the pool of zeaxanthin under high light was reduced. What they did was to also engineer the plants to make more of the part of one of those photosystems (II, if you're curious, the PsbS subunit if you're even more curious) that is associated with stimulation of nonphotochemical quenching. This extra boost brought the zeaxanthin levels back to that of the un-engineered plants. And lo and behold, in a field trial, the tobacco engineered with Arabidopsis genes had up to 20% improvement of yield.

But it's fucking genetic engineering, you say. Wasn't that a Monsanto plot to dominate the world food supply? Well, it was a minor part of the plot, a part that got blocked by protests, and Monsanto still bought up a huge chunk of the world's seed business in several major crops. It was also an attempt by scientists to try and develop plants that will feed a world with a growing population and environmental instability. This particular tech is being developed at universities funded by a nonprofit foundation, and the money was taken with the stipulation that Africa and other less developed regions in the world get it without the big companies cashing in.

What this is doing, in essence, is taking a completely natural process found in all plants and making it more efficient, not by adding anything new, but by making reactions that already exist go faster. Back when I was working on plant signaling underlying resistance to disease, that was what I thought was the ultimate eco-friendly solution: more efficient signaling. Unfortunately, disappearance of funding ended my career, and since that time, I had seen nobody successful in pursuing the strategy of altering kinetics of natural processes as a way of improving crops.

Until I saw this paper today. They did it. This research is groundbreaking in a way that even many plant scientists won't appreciate.

But more importantly, if it works in crop plants, it will help feed people in a completely eco-friendly fashion. And here's where you who are reading this come in. This won't happen, like a lot of other very important developments that would have benefitted the entire world didn't happen, because of the legacy fight against GMOs that no longer has a purpose. Monsanto won their fight against the world without much reliance on GMOs at all, more on leveraging capital to buy out seed and other companies. And now Bayer will soon own them. Opposition to GMOs should be a dead issue, to be buried back in 1990s history. But these new improvements won't happen if the misguided folks in the environmental left, with whom I tend to agree on nearly every other issue, don't accept the reality that transgenic plants are a completely safe technology with enormous potential to help people.

Having taught an entire semester-long college class back in 2006 on what went wrong in the biotech industry, having worked in the field prior to that time, and having debated the chief spokesman for genetic engineering for Greenpeace on national radio back in the year 2000, I have some background from which I speak. (And not to knock Greenpeace; they do a lot of good work, and I've been a paid-up member at points in my life.) And from that background, I urge you not to oppose this technology, or similar tech that will ultimately work to increase staple crop yields.

You can start by sharing this blog post, or, if you have the background, making your own. When you aren't trying to sway the masses, merely segments of the intelligentsia and the political class in developed countries that tend to use social media a lot, your Facebook and Twitter posts do matter.

Who knows? Maybe a New York Times reporter will even come across it.

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