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Genetically engineered rice needs less fertilizer, makes more food

Image of a series of steps in a hillside, each covered in green vegetation.

Enlarge / A terraced rice field in Vietnam. (credit: Getty Images)

Nitrogen fertilizer is made from natural gas. Extracting and burning natural gas is harming life on our planet, so we should probably stop doing it (or at least try to cut back considerably). But food crops, like all plants, need that nitrogen. It’s quite the conundrum, especially since the human population relying on those crops is slated to grow over the next few decades, while the acreage of arable land is slated to drop.

In response, genetic engineers in China have been developing crops that can thrive with less nitrogen, and they made a strain of rice with a yield that’s 40 to 70 percent higher than that of regular rice. It has more grain per branch, each grain particle is bigger and denser, and the plants flowered earlier. Most breeding methods currently used in cereal crops can only generate a yield increase of less than 1 percent, so this is a pretty big deal.

One gene alters many

The scientists started by looking at proteins called transcription factors, which often control the expression of a set of genes that are often involved in varying aspects of a single physiological function. In this case, the focus was on transcription factors that were already known to regulate photosynthesis.

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