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Scientists design a more productive maize to cope with harsh climates

Maize plants

A research team from Centre of Excellence for Translational Photosynthesis has designed a more productive maize which is tolerant to hash climatic conditions such as heat and drought by targeting an enzyme in charge of capturing Carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere.

The enzyme Rubisco which is in charge of converting CO2 into organic compounds is the main enzyme plants use in their food making process, photosynthesis.

“We developed a transgenic maize designed to produce more Rubisco, the main enzyme involved in photosynthesis, and the result is a plant with improved photosynthesis and hence, growth. This could potentially increase tolerance to extreme climate conditions,” said Dr. Robert Sharwood from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Translational Photosynthesis, led by The Australian National University (ANU).

“There is an urgent need to deliver new higher-yielding and highly adapted crop species, before crops are affected by the expected climate change conditions. These conditions will increase the threats against global food security, and the only way to prepare for them is through international research collaborations,” said Dr. Robert Sharwood from the ANU research School of Biology.

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Every plant on the planet uses photosynthesis to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but not all plants do it in the same way. Plants like wheat and rice use the ancient, less efficient C3 photosynthetic path, while other plants such as maize and sorghum use the more efficient C4 path.

C4 plants include some of the world’s most important food, feed and biofuel crops, accounting for 20-25 percent of the planet’s terrestrial productivity. These plants are specially adapted to thrive in hot and dry environments, like the ones that are expected to be more prevalent in future decades.

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In C4 plants, Rubisco works much faster and they are more tolerant to heat and drought through better water use efficiency.

“Maize has one of the most efficient Rubiscos and they need less nitrogen to work. So we found that by boosting Rubisco inside the maize cells, we get an increase in crop productivity,” said co-researcher David Stern, from the Boyce Thompson Institute an affiliate of Cornell University.

This is a very exciting finding, because it shows that there is room for improvement even in the more productive C4 crop species.

“In our study we improved CO2 assimilation and crop biomass by 15 per cent, but now we know that we can also increase the pool of active Rubisco and these numbers will increase even higher,” said Dr. Sharwood.

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“Our next step is to do field trials to see how our maize behaves in real field conditions. We have tested them in glasshouse and cabinet conditions, but now we need to go into the next phase,” said Dr. Sharwood.

According to the researchers, maize or corn is a staple food for billions of people around the world, with more maize grown annually than rice or wheat.

For more info and assistance, contact Natalia Bateman at [email protected]

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