By Erik Stokstad
Supporters of genetic engineering have long promised it will help meet the world’s growing demand for food. But despite the creation of many genetically modified (GM) pest- and herbicide-resistant crops, scientists haven’t had much success with boosting crop growth. Now, researchers have for the first time shown they can reliably increase corn yields up to 10% by changing a gene that increases plant growth—regardless of whether growing conditions are poor or optimal.
“It’s incredible,” says Kan Wang, a molecular biologist at Iowa State University in Ames who was not involved in the new study. Aside from increasing corn harvests, she says, the new modifications should inspire other researchers in the quest for coaxing higher yields out of other crops.
The world’s most widely planted GM crops, including soybean, corn, and cotton, were created with a few relatively simple genetic tweaks. By adding a single gene from bacteria to certain crop varieties, for example, scientists gave them the ability to make a protein that kills many kinds of insects. Another simple genetic manipulation results in crops that withstand glyphosate or other herbicides; one benefit is that farmers can kill weeds without eroding the soil. Yet another protects crops during drought. But it’s been a lot harder to come up with plants that also yield more grain in good conditions, because of the complex genetics involved in plant growth.
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