Ag Science & Technology

Submitted by Karri Hammerstrom and Barbara LeVake

Biotechnology allows farmers to grow more crops using less water.

Research funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and announced in March revealed that for the first time, scientists have improved how a crop uses water by 25 percent, without compromising yield, by changing the expression of one gene that is found in all plants.

According to the press release in the scientific journal, Nature Communications:

“The international team increased the levels of a photosynthetic protein (PsbS) to conserve water by tricking plants into partially closing their stomata, the microscopic pores in the leaf that allow water to escape.  Stomata are the gatekeepers to plants: When open, carbon dioxide enters the plant to fuel photosynthesis, but water is allowed to escape through the process of transpiration.”

California Cherries

California’s cherry growers – along with scientists at the University of California – are using gene-editing techniques to control the population of invasive fruit flies that have already caused $700 million in damage to the state’s cherry industry.

Trees

The National Academies of Sciences is conducting a new study to examine the potential for biotechnology to address forest health.  Biotechnology has already been tapped by researchers to save elm and chestnut trees, and California’s Redwood Genome Project is looking to genetics technology to preserve the Giant Sequoia.

Citrus

The citrus industry is searching for ways to prevent the spread of Huanglongbing (HLB), a devastating, incurable disease spread by the invasive Asian citrus psyllid as it feeds from tree to tree. Once a tree is infected with HLB, it will die.  Diseased trees need to be removed to protect other citrus trees on the property.

Since 2007, Florida has lost $7.8 billion in revenue, 162,200 citrus acres, and more than 7,500 jobs due to the HLB disease. The USDA is considering the use of a genetically engineered virus to combat this disease; pending final approval, the program is expected to begin in 2019.

Wine & Table Grapes

The wine and table grape industry is fighting Pierce’s Disease, an infection spread by insects called Glassy Winged Sharpshooters. Vines infected with Pierce’s Disease shrivel up.  One estimate shows a $104.4 million cost to the California industry every year. Biotechnology research to help thwart the disease is under development at University of California.

In addition, genetic modification, traditional crossing and marker-selected breeding and gene editing techniques such as CRISPR/Cas9 have also shown promise in combatting powdery mildew, another wine grape pest.

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