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Using Human Proteins Helps Potatoes and Rice Grow 50% Bigger

Scientists found that using proteins linked to obesity creates crops that can grow 50% more.

Using Human Proteins Helps Potatoes and Rice Grow 50% Bigger
A couple of couch potatoes. CHRISadowski / iStock

A new study from the University of Chicago, Peking University, and Guizhou University reveals that inserting a gene linked to human obesity and fat into crops could help them grow bigger and ampler. Modifying plant RNA is a promising strategy to dramatically improve plant growth and crop yield, the group explained in the study published in the journal Nature.

Using Human Proteins Helps Potatoes and Rice Grow 50% Bigger
Regular potato harvest next to growth-enhanced potato harvest. Source: Qiong Yu et. al.

It's known that RNA reads DNA, which then manages proteins. However, the University of Chicago Professor and lead researcher of the study Chuan He and his team discovered that RNA doesn't just read the DNA: In 2011, the research team found that the cell can also regulate the nature of the system it's in by itself. This means that when the RNA is altered, it has the ability to modify which proteins are made and how many. After learning this, the team tried using FTO, a protein that affects cell growth in humans and animals.

He said that plants do not have an FTO-equivalent protein, in an interview with Smithsonian. He's team then tried to study how plants would react to a foreign protein. And, much to their surprise, FTO didn't harm the plant. Instead, it forced the plants to increase in size.

The team first infused rice and potato plants with a gene filled with the FTO protein, which is associated with obesity and the hormones that promote human fat mass growth. Since the FTO chemically alters the RNA of the plants, they grew 50% bigger and stronger than usual, with longer roots, and better drought tolerance. The study also found that the infused plants also had increased photosynthesis rates. This could point to a new horizon for the agriculture industry.

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A new horizon for the agriculture industry

In an interview with Phys.org, the University of Chicago Professor and lead researcher of the study Chuan He said: "The change really is dramatic. What's more, it worked with almost every type of plant we tried it with so far, and it's a very simple modification to make."

"This really provides the possibility of engineering plants to potentially improve the ecosystem as global warming proceeds," added He in the report, who emphasized the way humans "rely on plants for many, many things — everything from wood, food, and medicine, to flowers and oil — and this potentially offers a way to increase the stock material we can get from most plants."

The study marks the beginning of a long and promising process that could help boost the harvest of everyday agriculture products we consume. Although the experts say more research needs to be done. In a world that is both hunger-stricken and heavily polluted, with one-third of our greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture, we may need to rely on bio-engineering for solutions. But, instead of growing more crops, perhaps we should focus on growing smarter crops. And, the team's breakthrough study is just the beginning of what they hope will help boost global crop systems.

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