Gene discovery fails to wow Canadian plant breeder

Crop yields | Alberta Agriculture official skeptical that U.S. researchers can improve efficiency of photosynthesis in C3 plants, including barley

Researchers at Cornell University believe they have found a gene that will increase crop yields by 50 percent.

The “scarecrow” gene controls a leaf structure that will lead to more efficient photosynthesis.

Plants use two methods of photosynthesis: C3 in plants like barley and rice and C4 in plants like sugar cane and corn.

With the discovery of the gene, researchers hope to be able to transfer the more efficient photosynthesis technology from C4 crops to C3 crops.

The finding “provides a clue as to how this whole anatomical key is regulated,” said Robert Turgeon, professor of plant biology at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

Farmers could grow wheat and rice in hotter, drier environments with less fertilizer and possibly increase yields if C4 photosynthesis is successfully transferred to C3 plants, he said.

However, Jim Helm, plant breeder and head of research at Alberta Agriculture’s field crops branch in Lacombe, Alta., said just because researchers have discovered something doesn’t mean it’s going to be adopted.

“If you go back 50 years ago, they found the holy grail of having wheat fix its own nitrogen. Did they ever do it? Fifty years later and it’s never been done,” he said.

It’s the same with C3 and C4 crops, he added. The more efficient C4 crops are warm season crops that require more heat and water.

“This is not something that has been discussed just recently. I remember taking a class on this 45 years ago and whether or not we could actually change C3 crops to C4 crops. There is nothing new under the sun,” said Helm.

“Even if you could do this, where’s the water? How are you going to grow it on the prairies of Saskatchewan and Alberta without that extra water and that extra heat.… This is another one of those things that gets people excited and gets them money and press and more money and hopefully five years down the road everyone forgets they made a fool of themselves.”

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