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National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

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New Plant Research Discoveries May Help Solve Global Food Deficiencies

By: Carol Kelly


Julian Schroeder, Ph.D.

One project in Julian Schroeder’s lab focuses on identifying genes that mediate sodium stress and drought resistance, as well as heavy metal uptake and detoxification in plants.
(Photo courtesy of Julian Schroeder)

With the global population predicted to grow by two billion people in the next four decades, increased nutritious and sustainable food production is essential for human and environmental health. New plant research is offering potential solutions for meeting agricultural demand.

An international group of scientists led by Julian Schroeder, Ph.D., Ph.D., professor of biology and an NIEHS grantee at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), has collectively discovered important properties about the ways plants grow and upload nutrients that could beneficially affect global agriculture.

The discoveries, recently published in a review in Nature, center on the transport proteins within plant cell membranes. Transport processes are crucial and enable plants to survive environmental stresses. With improved transporters, plants can better resist toxic metals and pests, increase salt and drought tolerance, control water loss, and expand energy storage. Together, the implications for increasing the supply of food includes enhanced staple crop yields, increased nutrient content, and improved tolerance to unfavorable soil conditions, which could mean farming on previously unusable or marginally useable land.

“More fundamental knowledge and basic discovery research is needed, and would enable us to fully exploit these advances and pursue new promising avenues of plant improvement in light of food and energy demands and the need for sustainable yield gains,” said Schroeder.

One of Schroeder’s research advances led to the discovery of a sodium transporter, named HKT1, that plays a key role in protecting plants from soil salinity stress, a key cause of major crop losses. In field trials using durum wheat plants, a staple commercial grain crop, a team of Australian scientists found that a particularly active member of the HKT1 transporter family removed excess sodium and boosted yields by 25 percent.  

Plants are the major point of entry for essential nutrients into the food chain. The work of Schroeder’s collaborator Mary Lou Guerinot , Ph.D., the Ronald and Deborah Harris Professor of the Sciences at Dartmouth College and a NIEHS grantee, contributes to understanding how plants absorb and distribute metals, such as iron. Her work is laying the foundation for crops, particularly rice, that have higher micronutrient levels and offer sustainable solutions for malnutrition.

To further address the world’s food requirements, Schroeder is also co-director of the Center for Food & Fuel for the 21st Century at UCSD. This recently established research center brings together scientists, policy makers, and industry representatives to discuss advances and stimulate collaborations across traditional boundaries. Their work concerns the use of photosynthetic organisms for enhanced food production and energy independence. The goal is to apply basic research on plants to support sustainable food and biofuel production.

“Many recent plant discoveries around the world have previously been under the radar—known only to a small group of plant biologists,” said Schroeder. “By disseminating these findings widely, we hope to educate policy makers and speed the eventual application of recent discoveries to global agriculture.”