Identifying genes that control how plants absorb and transport nutrients can be a "key" to improving food security by increasing crop tolerance to poor soils and disease, enriching food with nutrients and reducing fertiliser use, says a paper published today in Nature.
But its lead author tells SciDev.Net that the research in this area is not getting the attention and funding that it needs to transition from lab to field and make a global impact on food security.
The paper outlines a series of recent advances in locating specific genes that regulate plants' protein channels — the pathways through which substances pass into the root systems and travel around plants.
- Research looking at plants on a molecular level offers insights for breeding better crops
- Potential gains include disease resistance, tolerance of poor soils and less need for fertilisers
- But much of this science is still some way from reaching farmers
Once identified in a plant species, genes responsible for desirable traits can be inserted into commercial crop varieties using either molecular breeding or genetic modification.
Recent "breakthroughs" have placed the research area "at the cusp of influencing agriculture on a global scale," says Julian Schroeder, a professor of biology at University of California in San Diego, and lead author of the study.
For example, genes taken from a salt-tolerant wild wheat species have already boosted yields of a commercial variety by a quarter in Australia, in otherwise unsuitable saline soils, the study says.
It adds that further progress is evident in ongoing field studies of sorghum strains bred to tolerate acidic soil — prevalent in tropical and subtropical regions, where developing nations are concentrated.
Acidic and saline soils, whose high levels of aluminium and sodium respectively make them agriculturally unproductive, cover more than a third of the world's ice-free land area, the paper says.
Therefore breeding plants that limit uptake of these elements would open up swathes of new land to farming, it adds.
Other promising possibilities, such as improving nitrogen and phosphorus uptake to reduce fertiliser needs, and increasing iron and zinc absorption to fortify foods' nutrient value, are yet to make it to large-scale field, the study says.
Yet despite the "huge" potential benefits, research in the area is not getting the attention that it needs to make a global impact, says Schroeder.
For advances to contribute to food security and development, a push towards field trials and application is needed, underpinned by better support from funders, he adds.
Up to this point funding has been "barely sufficient" to get research even to these fledgling stages, he says.
The sentiment that there is still a long road to travel before advances in basic science will find their way into the hands of farmers is echoed by a number of scientists from the CGIAR research consortium.
Idupulapati Rao, a senior crop scientist at CGIAR's International Centre for Tropical Agriculture, in Colombia, believes it could be up to a decade before these basic science advances reach farmers in developing nations.
But the fact that progress has been made in major food crops, such as wheat, rice, maize and sorghum, mean that regardless of the timeframe, the eventual impact on agricultural development is "almost certain", he adds.
With funding for crop improvement programmes markedly improved in recent years, it is now up to national policymakers to invest more resources in capacity building for these initiatives, particularly in developing nations, where the benefits could be greatest, Rao says.
Link to full paper in Nature
Nature doi: 10.1038/nature11909