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Adding This One Gene Gives Crops More Protein

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“Most of the world relies on plants as a major protein resource,” says Ling Li. “And protein that comes from animal sources requires more water, energy, and resources to produce, so a diet that relies more on protein-heavy plants is more sustainable.”

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Adding This One Gene Gives Crops More Protein

A gene found in only one plant species can increase protein content when introduced into staple crops, a new study shows.

The research has implications for a wide array of crops, especially for staples grown in the developing world, where sufficient sources of protein are sometimes limited.

“We’ve found that introducing this gene to plants such as corn, rice, and soybean increases protein without affecting yields,” says Ling Li, an adjunct assistant professor of genetics, development, and cell biology at Iowa State University.

Li has worked for years with Eve Syrkin Wurtele, a professor of genetics, development, and cell biology, on a gene they discovered in 2004 that appears only in Arabidopsis, a small flowering plant.

Li and Wurtele refer to this gene, called QQS, as an “orphan gene” because it’s not present in the genome of any other organism.

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The gene regulates the protein content in Arabidopsis seeds and leaves, so Li and Wurtele wondered what would happen if they used transgenic technology to introduce the gene to other plants. Could it lead to increased protein in plants that humans commonly eat?

In a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers show that the orphan gene works much the same way in rice, corn, and soybeans. That’s good news for parts of the world where protein-rich foods are scarce, Li says.

Protein deficiency leads to developmental problems in children, but protein-rich plants may present a solution, Wurtele says.

“Most of the world relies on plants as a major protein resource,” Li says. “And protein that comes from animal sources requires more water, energy, and resources to produce, so a diet that relies more on protein-heavy plants is more sustainable.”

Getting such transgenic crops into the global market requires years of research, safety testing, and millions of dollars, Wurtele says. Accordingly, the researchers are also looking at non-transgenic avenues to produce similar results.

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The key to such avenues may revolve around the protein to which the orphan gene binds, known as NF-YC4. That particular protein is present in all plants and animals, so it can be altered in crop species without resorting to a transgenic approach, Li says.

By overexpressing, or producing more of, the NF-YC4 gene in staple crops, the researchers can increase the protein value of plants without using transgenes, which could save time and costs in the regulatory process, Li says.

Scientists are still only beginning to grasp how orphan genes work and the value they represent, she says. Wurtele says she expects more scientists to “adopt” orphan genes in the years ahead to see what they’re capable of.

“This is one orphan gene that we’ve shown has big potential,” Wurtele says. “And we believe there will be many more discoveries related to other orphan genes in the future.”

The National Science Foundation, the United Soybean Board, the Iowa State University Research Foundation, and the Iowa State University Center for Metabolic Biology supported the research.

Source: Iowa State University

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