Late in January researchers at Cornell University announced the discovery of a gene they have called Scarecrow. The gene controls the photosynthesis structures found in plant leaves. Known as Kranz anatomy, this novel leaf anatomical structure provides plants which have it considerable advantage over those that don't.
To understand the implications you need to know a little more about plant anatomy and physiology. Plants use photosynthesis to harvest the energy from sunlight and CO2 and convert these two into sugar. Plants over time have evolved two different methods of photosynthesis. One is called C3, the predominant method. The other, C4, is an adaptation that gives those plants with it a more efficient production mechanism with the added benefit of being able to better deal with more intense sunlight, high levels of heat, low nitrogen soils and prolonged drought. The C3 photosynthesis mechanism evolved early in Earth's history when there was much more atmospheric CO2 and less free oxygen. The C4 adaptation came later after C3 plants added considerable amounts of free oxygen to the atmosphere.
C4 plants feature an extra layer of bundle sheath cells encircling the core cells involved in converting sunlight and CO2 into sucrose. And C4 plants, unlike C3 produce no byproduct associated with handling oxygen that needs to be further degraded, making the latter 50% less efficient in making sucrose. And although researchers have understood the difference in the two mechanisms what they didn't know was the underlying genetics responsible for C4. The discovery of Scarecrow means that scientists through genetic modification can begin to introduce C4 into C3 plants.
Why is this important? Because wheat and rice, two principle food staples are both C3. With 7 billion human mouths to feed today, and projections of population growth to 9.5 billion by mid-century, and with the increasing impact of global warming on weather patterns, the promise of 50% higher crop yields is significant. C4 versions of C3 plants will grow in a hotter, drier world and will need less nitrogen-based fertilizers.
For those who oppose genetic modifications to food crops, this discovery may further spook them. But I am increasingly convinced by the hard science that GMO represents a key strategy for our species as we progress through the 21st century. Without it we will find the limits imposed by changing climate and finite agricultural land a potential death sentence for billions.
In this cross section of a corn leaf you can see the wreath of cells in lighter red surrounding the plant's vascular core. That wreath consists of bundle sheath (BS) cells. The darker red are mesophyll cells (M). It is the interaction and cooperation between the BS and M that represents the evolutionary advantage that is the C4 mechanism.
Essays and comments posted in World Future Society and THE FUTURIST magazine blog portion of this site are the intellectual property of the authors, who retain full responsibility for and rights to their content. For permission to publish, distribute copies, use excerpts, etc., please contact the author. The opinions expressed are those of the author. The World Future Society takes no stand on what the future will or should be like.
KEEP UP WITH WFS NEWS & UPCOMING EVENTS
March 5, 2015 - From the perspective of coastal southern Florida it takes little imagination to realize just what is at risk from rising sea levels, a consequence of global warming. The area where my wife, our dog and I are staying lies a little over one meter (3.3 feet) above sea level. Every rainstorm causes roadway flooding in front of our apartment.
March 3, 2015 - The 21st century is creating a whole new area of expertise and a business opportunity for organizations both private and public focused on mitigating and combating climate change. Here is a brief overview of a few of these. If you know of others please let me know and I will endeavour to write about the work they are doing in this most important field.
March 1, 2015 - In 2012 Indonesia's contribution to greenhouse gas (GHG) global emissions amounted to 4.5%. That placed them sixth, well behind the United States, China and Germany.
February 27, 2015 - A few days away in Jamaica this week and I am feeling the vibe of that island even while sitting down to write about a journey far longer than a hop across the Caribbean from Florida to Montego Bay.
Science fiction is a genre of literature in which artifacts and techniques humans devise as exemplary expressions of our intelligence result in problems that perplex our intelligence or even bring it into existential crisis.
February 21, 2015 - By 2050 with more than 9 billion human mouths to feed let alone countless cattle, pigs, chickens and other meat, it is not surprising that food scientists are turning to the most prolific animals on Earth as a good source for protein. We are not talking about two and four-legged creatures, but those with six - insects.
February 19, 2015 - Some of you who are my readers may not know that when I graduated from university my degree was in Islamic Studies and Medieval History. I was very much aware of Islam's contribution to the science of mathematics, astronomy and chemistry during the golden age of the Islamic World, the 8th through the 10th century.