RNA breakthrough creates crops that can grow 50% more potatoes, rice

Chuan He

Manipulating RNA can allow plants to yield dramatically more crops, as well as increasing drought tolerance, announced a group of scientists from the University of Chicago, Peking University and Guizhou University. In initial tests, adding a gene encoding for a protein called FTO to both rice and potato plants increased their yield by 50% in field tests. The plants grew significantly larger, produced longer root systems and were better able to tolerate drought stress. Analysis also showed that the plants had increased their rate of photosynthesis. “The change really is dramatic,” said Dr. Chuan He  (BMB, Cancer Biology, Immunology, GGSB) who, together with Prof. Guifang Jia at Peking University, led the research. “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—along with other leading experts—are hopeful about the potential of this breakthrough, especially in the face of climate change and other pressures on crop systems worldwide. “This really provides the possibility of engineering plants to potentially improve the ecosystem as global warming proceeds,” said He, who is the John T. Wilson Distinguished Service Professor of Chemistry, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. “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 2011, He’s lab opened an entire new field of research by discovering the keys to a different way that genes are expressed in mammals. It turns out that RNA doesn’t simply read the DNA blueprint and carry it out blindly; the cell itself can also regulate which parts of the blueprint get expressed. It does so by placing chemical markers onto RNA to modulate which proteins are made and how many.

He and his colleagues immediately realized that this had major implications for biology. Since then, his team and others around the world have been trying to flesh out our understanding of the process and what it affects in animals, plants and different human diseases; for example, He is a co-founder of a biotech company now developing new anti-cancer medicines based on targeting RNA modification proteins.

He and Guifang Jia, a former UChicago postdoctoral researcher who is now an associate professor at Peking University, began to wonder how it affected plant biology.

They focused on a protein called FTO, the first known protein that erases chemical marks on RNA, which Jia found as a postdoctoral researcher in He’s group at UChicago. The scientists knew it worked on RNA to affect cell growth in humans and other animals, so they tried inserting the gene for it into rice plants—and then watched in amazement as the plants took off.

“I think right then was when all of us realized we were doing something special,” He said.

Read the full story "RNA breakthrough creates crops that can grow 50% more potatoes, rice" published on July 22, 2021 by Louise Lerner

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