A new study shows that introducing animal genes into common crops leads to a large yield increase and makes them more resistant to drought, the Daily Mail reported on 23 July.
Researchers from the USA and China manipulated the ribonucleic acid (RNA) of potato and rice plants by adding a gene called FTO, according to the report.
In humans, FTO was linked to obesity. However, in crops, it tripled their overall growth and yield, the study found.
When trialled in field tests, the vegetables grew 50% more mass and yielded 50% more plants.
The plants also increased their rate of photosynthesis and produced longer root systems, which could enable them to better withstand a drought, the Daily Mail wrote.
“The change really is dramatic,'” co-author Prof Chuan He, a chemical biologist at the University of Chicago, was quoted as saying 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.”
The researchers believed that when FTO - which was known to erase some of the chemical markers on RNA that controlled genetic instructions - was introduced into crops, it muffled some of the signals telling them to reduce growth, the report said.
After seeing results with rice plants, the team tried with potatoes - part of an unrelated plant family - and the outcome was equally impressive, according to the statement.
“That suggested a degree of universality that was extremely exciting,” Prof 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.”
While the new research involved splicing an animal gene into vegetable crops, the scientists believed that they could refine the process “using the plant's existing genetics”, the report said.
“This is a brand new type of approach, one that could be different from GMO and CRISPR gene editing; this technique allows us to ‘flip a switch’ in the plants at an early point in development, which continues to affect the plant's food production even after we remove the switch,” he said.
“It seems that plants already have this layer of regulation, and all we did is tap into it. So the next step would be to discover how to do it using the plant's existing genetics.”
There were other potential applications to the procedure, according to Prof He, such as engineering grasses in threatened areas that could withstand drought.
The results of the study were published in Nature Biotechnology.