You don't need to be a farmer to know that weeds grow faster than potatoes. But scientists have been trying for a while to make slow-growing plants -- like wheat and rice -- perform more like fast crops, like corn and many weeds. The key is the way the crops photosynthesize, and some genetic splicing could trick slow plants into speeding up.
In a new study published in Nature, scientists borrowed genes from photosynthesizing bacteria -- which are quicker and more efficient at the process than many plants -- and grafted them into tobacco crops. So far, the researchers have only pushed the tobacco plants through two steps of the bacteria's three-part photosynthesis process. From MIT Technology Review:
First, proteins form a special compartment within a plant cell that concentrates CO2; second, the compartment contains a speedy enzyme for converting that CO2; and third, the cells use special pumps in their membranes to usher CO2 into the cells.
Earlier this year, the researchers engineered cells to form the special CO2 compartments. The new research takes care of the second part—the speedy enzyme. They’re collaborating with other researchers on the third part, the pumps. Ultimately the researchers will need to put all three parts together in the same plants.
In fact, PopularMechanics reports, the genetically engineered tobacco in this experiment actually grew more slowly than natural plants, because it only produced the special enzyme -- without those compartments or pumps. To make it grow faster, the researchers need to combine all three steps.
For this reason, commercial crops grown with these alterations are probably at least a decade off. But eventually, the researchers say, these changes could boost crop yields by as much as 60 percent for some plants -- and allow farmers to use less water and fertilizer in the process.