Team Discovers a New Plant Growth Technology That May Alleviate Climate Change and Food Shortage

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January 13, 2016

Do you feel the heat? According to NASA and NOAA, 2014 was the hottest year since 1880 and the 10 warmest years in the instrumental record have occurred since 1998. The Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) of the United Nations confirmed in its Fifth Assessment Report that cumulative emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) largely determine global mean surface warming and predicted that by 2100, the global mean surface temperature may increase by 3.7 oC to 4.8oC over the average for 1850-1900 for a median climate response if there is no additional effort to reduce greenhouse gas emission is put in place. To alleviate the problem and slow down the rate of global warming, increasing the rate of CO2 absorption by plants or algae is one possible strategy.

A research team led by Dr. Lim Boon-leong with his former PhD student Dr. Law Yee-song from the School of Biological Sciences, Faculty of Science, the University of Hong Kong (HKU), has developed a new strategy to promote plant growth and seed yield by 38% to 57% in a model plant Arabidopsis thaliana, hence increasing CO2 absorption from the atmosphere. This technology may also have potential in boosting food production and thus could solve another danger of human civilization: food shortage due to overpopulation. According to the World Population Prospect of the United Nations in 2015, the global population will reach more than 9.7 billion by 2050, meaning a 57% increase since 2000.

In this technology, the researchers have identified a plant-growth promoting gene, designated as “Purple acid phosphatase 2” (AtPAP2) from the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana. AtPAP2 is dually targeted to two energy-generating organelles of plant cells: chloroplasts and mitochondria. Chloroplasts carry out photosynthesis, a process that fixes CO2 in atmosphere into sugars using solar energy. The sugars are then used for plant growth including cell wall, biomass and seeds, or consumed by mitochondria to produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP), an important energy source for many cellular processes.

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Featured image: Arabidopsis overexpressing AtPAP2 (Experimental) grow faster than control plants (Control). Credit: The University of Hong Kong