Biological Engineering to Increase Global Yields

From C4 rice to CRISPR technology, bio-engineering and data analytics could herald the coming of a new Green Revolution.

By Deborah R. Huso | Photos By Charlie Niebergall

Information technology will likely have significant impacts on the face of farming within the next decade, but it will be the longer-term investment in biological engineering that promises the greatest leaps in addressing the global problem of food insecurity. Here’s a quick look at what research scientists are working on to feed the world on a scale that could establish a second Green Revolution.

C4 Rice

In a recent paper in The Plant Journal entitled “Engineering C4 photosynthesis into C3 chassis in the synthetic biology age,” researchers wrote: “Photosynthesis as the engine for life on earth has high engineering potential, which has not yet been fully exploited,” adding, “it will eventually become possible to employ this powerful machinery to increase yields for the future.”

Enter C4 Rice, a concept promising enough that it has drawn funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Rice is one of the world’s most significant food crops, and researchers are working on a way to dramatically increase the world’s rice yields by converting its natural employment of C3 photosynthesis into C4 (the Cs stand for the carbon atoms involved in photosynthesis). Through the process of evolution, some tropically raised plants like maize, sorghum and sugarcane now use C4 photosynthesis— a much more efficient process.

Molecular biologists hope that since C4 photosynthesis has evolved in plants naturally more than 60 times, they might be able to “force” an evolution in rice with the potential to increase the world’s rice yields by 50%.

How far away are we? Probably decades, but as Kansas State Cropping Systems economist Terry Griffin says, “The C4 mechanism will probably have huge increases in yield with some fine-tuning.”

Genome Editing

In part because of its relatively low cost of entry, CRISPR technology is seen by many bio-engineering researchers as having tremendous potential in agriculture, as well as many other fields. Another point in its favor, many experts claim, is that it differs in several critical ways from the more controversial GMO techniques for developing new plant varieties.

Essentially, CRISPR is a genome editing technique that, in many cases, involves adding no foreign DNA to an organism. Instead, CRISPR can be limited to simply editing the existing genome. Scientists are already experimenting with CRISPR to prevent wheat from self-pollinating, so they can more easily develop hybrid crops and to generate wheat strains resistant to powdery mildew.

Working Hand-in-Hand: Bio-Engineering and Analytics

Ultimately, Griffin sees biological engineering and the data analytics promised by products like Farmers Edge Farm Command and AGCO’s Fuse technology coming together to create a new agricultural landscape.

“Safety, sustainability, and environmental stewardship,” he says, are the three big factors ag needs to address. There has to be a balance between impacts on the health of the planet and the need to feed the world, he believes.

The big question, he says, is “how can we improve the world through agriculture?” A multidisciplinary approach fusing biological engineering with advanced technology could be the key.