Experts launch bid to engineer super crop



Scientists at the University of Sheffield are beginning a search for the ultimate plant leaf in a bid to build super crops that will fight the world’s food shortage.

The £890,000 investigation, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), begins in January 2012, and will see experts from the University’s Department of Animal and Plant Sciences attempt to breed rice plants which photosynthesise more economically and grow larger crops.

Experts in Sheffield will engineer plants to produce varieties of new leaf structures designed to increase the take up of carbon dioxide which is fixed into sugars within the plant.

These new leaves will then be examined using a micro CT scanner to produce high-resolution 3D images by researchers at the University of Nottingham before being analysed in Sheffield to identify each leaf’s strengths and weaknesses as well as which elements can be modified.

Professor Andrew Fleming of the University of Sheffield’s Plant Science in the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, who is leading the collaborative project, said: “The concentration of carbon dioxide is changing so that plant leaves may no longer have an optimal structure for photosynthesis. We will create new leaves and test their efficiency of photosynthesis to see if we can identify an optimal future leaf design. The eventual aim is to use our knowledge to aid world-wide efforts to improve crops, in particular rice, the staple food for much of humanity.

“The seventh billionth person has been born and within our lifetimes the population of the planet is projected to rise to nine billion. Providing sufficient food is a massive task, it has been predicted that in the next 50 years we will consume as much food as we have produced since the beginning of agriculture, more than 10,000 years ago. The breeding of such super crops is recognised as being a key element in the strategy to feed the world\’s burgeoning population.”

Leading the scanning team at Nottingham, Dr Sacha Mooney added: “This new technology is a game-changer in that for the first time we can look inside a leaf or a root and see the living plant in action at a cellular level. Similarly we can truly see what soils look like at microscopic level in the field and examine how water and nutrients pass through it. We anticipate our research will produce results which are invaluable in the quest for food security on a global scale.”

The research forms part of the University of Sheffield’s Project Sunshine initiative which aims to harness the power of the sun to tackle the increasing food and energy needs of the world´s population in an ever changing global environment.

Experts will share their findings with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) who are leading a Bill and Melinda Gates funded project on rice improvement.