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University of Chicago scientists find a new way to boost crop yields

The scientists hope the breakthrough work will provide some relief as the planet deals with a more unstable climate.

Students pick potatoes at a community garden that provides produce to food pantries and homeless shelters.
University of Chicago scientists say manipulating plant genes increased the yield in rice and potato plants by 50%.
Sun-Times file

A team led by University of Chicago scientists has found a new way to boost crop yield and make the plants more resistant to drought — a technique they hope could be used in an increasingly unstable climate.

“The change really is dramatic,” UC Professor Chuan He, one of the lead researchers in the study, said in a statement. “What’s more, it worked with almost every type of plant we tried it with so far, and it’s a very simple modification to make.”

In tests, by manipulating the plant genes, scientists managed to increase the yield in rice and potato plants by 50%, the scientists said.

Scientists from Peking University and Guizhou University, both in China, also participated in the research.

“This really provides the possibility of engineering plants to potentially improve the ecosystem as global warming proceeds,” He said. “We rely on plants for many, many things— everything from wood, food, and medicine, to flowers and oil — and this potentially offers a way to increase the stock material we can get from most plants.”

In laboratory conditions, the modified rice plants produced three times the typical yield. During field tests outside, the plants grew 50% more and yielded 50% more rice. They also grew longer roots, “photosynthesized more efficiently, and could better withstand stress from drought.”

The results were the same for the potato plants.

“That suggested a degree of universality that was extremely exciting,” He said.

Dr. Xinnian Dong, a professor of biology at Duke University, said the research could have a “profound impact” on major crop growth.

“This is indeed a new way of enhancing crop yield and stress resistance, and a prime example on how basic research can lead to major breakthroughs in agriculture and in medicine,” Dong said.