July 22 (UPI) -- Thanks to a breakthrough in RNA manipulation, crop scientists have developed new potato and rice varieties with higher yields and increased drought tolerance.
By inserting a gene responsible for production of a protein called FTO, scientists produced bigger rice and potato plants with more expansive root systems.
In experiments, the plants' longer roots improved their drought resistance.
Test results -- detailed Thursday in the journal Nature Biotechnology -- showed the RNA-manipulated plants also improved their rate of photosynthesis, boost yields by as much as 50 percent.
"The change really is dramatic," study co-author Chuan He, professor of chemical biology at the University of Chicago, said in a press release.
"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," He said.
With climate change predicted to expose many agricultural regions to higher temperatures and more frequent droughts, scientists hope their breakthrough will help buffer vulnerable agriculture systems -- and the communities that rely on them -- against climate stress.
According to the study's authors, yield increases can help prevent forest from being cleared for food production.
"This really provides the possibility of engineering plants to potentially improve the ecosystem as global warming proceeds," said He. "We 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."
Gene manipulation in plants and animals typically involves DNA, the primary blueprint for an organisms' many biological processes. RNA works like a messenger, translating and delivering instructions inside a cell.
But RNA don't blindly transcribe DNA. Research has shown these messengers have agency -- by depositing chemical markers on transcribed genetic code, RNA can manipulate which genes get expressed and which get silenced.
For the new study, He and Guifang Jia, a former University of Chicago postdoctoral researcher who is now an associate professor at Peking University, turned their attention to FTO, a protein that can remove chemical tags from RNA.
In previous tests involving FTO, researchers found the protein influences human cell growth.
When researchers spliced the gene for FTO into rice plants, the plants almost immediately started growing at an accelerated rate.
"I think right then was when all of us realized we were doing something special," He said.
In the lab, the manipulated rice plants grew at three times their normal rate. In the field, the rice plants increased their mass by 50 percent. They also sprouted longer roots, increased their photosynthesis rate and produced larger yields.
When they repeated the experiments with potato plants, the researchers got similar results, suggesting the new gene manipulation method could be used to bolster a variety of crops.
Scientists suspect FTO augments an RNA modification pathway called m6A, effectively deleting chemical markers that would otherwise direct a plant to slow its growth. The breakthrough effectively takes the governor off of crop growth.
Researchers estimate there may be other ways to manipulate the plant's growth regulation system without the help of RNA.
"It seems that plants already have this layer of regulation, and all we did is tap into it," He said. "So the next step would be to discover how to do it using the plant's existing genetics."