Science 4 min read

This Synthesized Sugar Molecule Increases Wheat Yield

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A new study has found a way to increase the size and starch content of wheat plants. This development could help mitigate future food shortages and the world’s population continues to grow and move to cities. 

Wheat is ingrained in our past, but it is also planted in our future. Roman civilization sustained its citizens with ‘bread and circuses.” Long before it was a trendy craft, beer brewing enriched populations from ancient Egypt to Medieval Europe. In years where wheat yield was great, civilizations rejoiced.

Industry 4.0 is changing everything about modern living, but it is not likely to replace wheat any time soon. Improving our ability to farm wheat, however, is very much in the works. Enter Rothamsted Research and Oxford University, where a new synthetic molecule has been developed that can increase the size and starch content of wheat plants by up to 20%.

“The tests we conducted in the lab show real promise for a technique that, in the future, could radically alter how we farm.” -Ben Davis

Bigger Plant Growth Equals Bigger Wheat Yield

Hunger and famine are problems that will likely never be totally eliminated, but they can be greatly diminished. Scientific avenues that take into account the biological and molecular makeup of major farming staples such as wheat are a good start.

The new research shows that introducing a synthesized sugar called trehalose 6-phosphate or T6P into wheat crops can increase the size and starch content of the plant. The molecule does occur naturally, but scientists have learned that a modified version of it can supercharge the growth of wheat grains.

Introducing a synthesized sugar called #trehalose 6-phosphate or #T6P into wheat crops can increase the size and starch content of the plant.Click To Tweet

Additionally, the molecule can help plants to recover from drought, which could help to regulate farmers’ wheat yield during difficult seasons. For example, when El Nino causes drought or flooding, farmers would not lose as many crops sensitive to saturation levels.

wheat yield
National Academy of Sciences

The method utilized T6P in varying concentrations (from 0.1 to 10mM) while wheat plants were flowering, and the molecule was added to different plants so that researchers could assess the effect of each concentration.

T6P was sprayed on either the ears or whole plant at regular intervals in their growth cycle, and when the plants were harvested the results could be clearly recorded. Furthermore, to test the increase of the plants’ resistance to drought, the wheat was deprived of water for ten days after the plants developed their stems, with T6P being applied on the ninth day.

Wheat yield isn’t the only beneficiary of this study. According to Professor Ben Davis of Oxford University, “The tests we conducted in the lab show real promise for a technique that, in the future, could radically alter how we farm not just wheat but many different crops.”

Aiming for the Next Cycle of Innovation

Amazingly, T6P is present in and can perform the same function for many plants and vegetables. Yet, this new application isn’t quite ready to be rolled out to the farming community as a whole. Dr. Matthew Paul of Rothamstead Research says that the study is only a proof of concept, but it shows us that it is possible to affect the way that plants incorporate natural sugars and nutrients so that they can grow.

The next stage of the research will require scientists to replicate the study in differing environments, such as those with more or less water availability.

There are a few caveats to this research:

  1. While it will allow farmers to maximize farmland, large swaths are still necessary. It is unclear if the application of T6P will be very helpful for vertical farming.
  2. People need more than just starch. While it is high in fiber, and humans do derive the majority of their carbohydrates from starches, the body needs a more balanced diet than wheat alone can offer. Increasing the size and carbohydrate content is not much more of an improvement than increasing the number of crops.

Modern societies may not be appeased by bread as they were in Roman civilization, but wheat is no less important now than it was then. If this study can be scaled up to include more plants and more variations in farming environments, there will be a greater food availability.

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William McKinney

William is an English teacher, a card carrying nerd, And he may run for president in 2020. #truefact #voteforedgy

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