Scientists develop a synthetic molecule that has been shown to increase the size and starch content of wheat grains in the lab by up to 20 per cent, with possibly significant implications for global food security. Matthew Stock reports.
Inside this growth chamber, an experimental wheat crop is being cultivated with grains 20 percent larger than normal. A synthetic molecule, dissolved in water, is sprayed on the wheat ears. This helps the plant absorb more of the natural sugar produced in photosynthesis. (SOUNDBITE) (English) DR. MATTHEW PAUL, PRINCIPLE INVESTIGATOR AT ROTHAMSTED RESEARCH, SAYING: "We found that this particular sugar [trehalose 6-phosphate] activates genes for starch synthesis in the wheat grain so meaning that there is a greater capacity for starch synthesis in the grain. We get bigger grains as a consequence, a higher yield. And this is actually resulting in more sugar produced in photosynthesis actually ending up where we want it in the ears of wheat." A short window of opportunity presents the best time for the chemical to be applied, to get the best effect on yield. (SOUNDBITE) (English) CARA A GRIFFITHS, POSTDOCTORAL RESEARCH SCIENTIST, ROTHAMSTED RESEARCH, SAYING: "In ideal growing conditions the actual chemical spraying has to occur in a very particular window during the life-cycle, and that's usually five to ten days after flowering has started to occur is when the chemicals are most beneficial." The British study was carried out by Rothamsted Research and Oxford University and published recently in the journal Nature. Researchers found just a single application of the synthetic molecule solution increased yield. (SOUNDBITE) (English) DR. MATTHEW PAUL, PRINCIPLE INVESTIGATOR AT ROTHAMSTED RESEARCH, SAYING: "And we think it's the first example of a chemical being applied simply to improve yield. Chemicals are often applied to control pest and diseases, but as far as we're aware this is the first chemical that you can apply to improve yield quite substantially in this case, by up to 20 percent." Improving crop yields like this could be vital for food security. The UN says almost 800 million people globally are currently undernourished; a situation often exacerbated by drought. Successful trials have so far all been lab-based. The next step is to replicate it in natural environments this year. The team is also working towards adapting their synthetic chemical to help boost yields of other staple foods, including rice and maize.