Novel tools to improve plant production could boost food security

Food insecurity is deadly – 9 million people die of hunger and hunger-related illnesses annually. This problem is set to continue, with the global population predicted to rise from 6.9 billion in 2010 to 9.8 billion people by 2050.

food security

To meet demand, food production will need to increase by 70 per cent while using less land, water, pesticides and fertilisers. Thankfully, researchers in Europe and around the globe are tackling issues of food security and food safety by exploring innovative ways to advance plant productivity, reduce disease and bolster beneficial nutrients.   

Funded by the COST programme, an international consortium of researchers is investigating RNA interference (RNAi) – a method used to silence gene expression – to improve plant metabolism and plant defence mechanisms. Through RNAi it is possible to eliminate allergens or toxins, boost beneficial nutrients, inhibit undesirable traits and increase quality and yield. Excitingly, RNAi can also be used to develop plant species that are resistant to pests and diseases.  

Until now, research into micro and small interfering RNAs has been limited, but through the COST ActionModifying plants to produce interfering RNA’ (iPlanta), the network hopes to advance understanding, as well as determine the environmental and socio-economic impacts of RNAi technology.

We are creating a large network of expertise covering different aspects of the new RNAi technology, with a high capability to further improve the knowledge of this technology, explore all the applications and identify the most relevant risks and benefits at the socio-economical level,” says iPlanta Chair Professor Bruno Mezzetti from Universita Politecnica delle Marche, Italy. 

Furthermore, it’s really important to develop a communication strategy that will increase public acceptance of RNAi products and products arising from other new breeding techniques.”

iPlanta and industry

iPlanta research is expected to have important implications to sustainable agricultural and biomaterials production systems, as well as on the quality and quantity of crop production.

Professor Mezzetti is particularly excited about the possible impact of RNAi technology on the industrial sector: “We have already identified the major potential of RNAi technology, but the newest novelty is the possibility of using RNAi directly on the plant, e.g. by spraying or injection, for inducing disease resistance or even to control fruit ripening,” he says.

This application is being investigated by many research programmes, and in the future, may open a new industrial sector in which RNAi will be a molecular tool able to replace chemical pesticides.”

Scientists from more than 30 countries have joined the iPlanta network, which is organised into five working groups covering: RNAi technology, application of RNAi technology in GM plants, biosafety, RNAi socio-economics, and communication and public acceptance. 

“COST funding is fundamental to the creation of the network, the exchange of knowledge on RNAi technology, the development of strategies for identifying risk and benefits of the technology, and communication to the public,” explains Professor Mezzetti.

Overall, we aim to create a network of research centres that will operate jointly (from the lab to the field) for these aims, promoting knowledge exchange, new joint research and new communication strategies,” he adds.

 

COST Action: www.cost.eu/COST_Actions/ca/CA15223 

Project website: http://iplanta.univpm.it


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Last updated: 01 September 2017 top of page