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Researchers predict increase of drought-resistant crops within 10 years

Western crop farmers now plagued by worsening water shortages from endangered species protection, reduced mountain snow and runoff, and growing urbanization demands will likely have more drought-resistant crops available for their production toolbox in the next five to 10 years.

Farmers would benefit substantially from higher yields through improved drought-resistant crops. That’s needed news to feed a burgeoning world population expected to top 8 billion people by 2025, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The world’s population was 6.7 billion on July 3.

“To feed that many people, farmers will need to feed five people per hectare (2.47 acres),” said Zinselmeier, program leader in water optimization technologies with Syngenta.

“With the rise in population comes the increase in the caloric demand of the population. Agriculture’s efficiency must improve.” Zinselmeir spoke during a panel discussion at the BIO International Convention in San Diego, Calif., on how evolving agricultural biotechnology can help crops flourish with less water.

Other speakers included Michael Metzlaff, group leader, crop productivity research, Bayer Inc., and Randy Allen, professor of molecular biology, Department of Biological Science, Texas Tech University.

Zinselmeier says one-third of the world’s population lives with water scarcity and the number is expected to double in the next 30 years. Agriculture uses about 70 percent of the world’s available fresh water to grow food and fiber.

Over the last decade, genomics, the study of gene sequences in living organisms, has provided vast information towards improving germplasm. Nearly 300 plant genomes have been partially or totally sequenced, he said.

“Drought tolerance is a complex trait. The complexity of drought is affected by timing, duration and intensity, and the interaction with factors such as heat and disease,” Zinselmeier said.

Syngenta’s research on drought-tolerant corn is aimed at recovering some yield loss caused by drought, having functionality across various stress levels, and reducing the water input on irrigated acres. The research is dual-based; focusing on breeding (non-genetically modified) and transgenic (genetically modified or GM).

“The breeding or native trait approach is exploring the untapped genetic diversity residing in non-elite maize germplasm,” Zinselmeier says. “The breeding approach is on track for a 2011 launch.” Syngenta’s focus is on four corn genes; each offers five to 10 bushel yield increases.

On the GM side, Syngenta researchers are looking for a “novel function” of a gene from alternative species. The emphasis is on flowering and ear development, root growth and uptake, transpiration and water use efficiency, photosynthesis, and general regulators. Syngenta plans a GM product launch around 2014.

Syngenta is working with the company AgroFresh toward a 2009 or 2010 release of the chemical Invinsa which can increase crop yields by 5 percent to 15 percent in many stressed crops, Zinselmeier says.

Michael Metzlaff, a Bayer plant molecular geneticist, says abiotic (naturally-occurring) stessors change during the crop development cycle. Cotton, for example, can face cold temperatures in its early development while dealing with drought and high heat later in the season.

About a decade ago Bayer began studying how organisms, both plants and animals, require energy to respond to stress. When organisms are energy-depleted, stress susceptibility increases the potential for disease.

Bayer is working on an energy component so plants never run out of energy — maintaining what Metzlaff called energy homeostasis. Even if the plant needs more energy for certain stress periods, there’s still enough input from biochemical pathways to supply adequate energy.

“Our hypothesis was to maintain the energy homeostasis in crops under stress so plants will deal better with abiotic stress,” Metzlaff said.

In 2000 and 2001 Bayer found a protein that repairs stress-damaged DNA. This is the key protein in the reaction of any organism in stress, Metzlaff said. Once the protein is modified, producing more stress-tolerant crops will be possible.

“A huge hurdle is will these genes work in all genetic backgrounds and all drought environments,” Zinselmeier said. “That’s a huge hurdle technically to achieve … and a significant challenge.”

Researcher Randy Allen of Texas Tech said the agricultural industry would benefit from finding a “magic gene or bullet” to decrease drought effects on plants. While scientists have developed experimental varieties of drought-tolerant crops, creating commercial counterparts will take several years longer.

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