New discoveries of the way plants transport important substances across their biological membranes to resist toxic metals and pests, increase salt and drought tolerance, control water loss and store sugar can have profound implications for increasing the supply of food and energy for our rapidly growing global population.

That’s the conclusion of 12 leading plant biologists from around the world whose laboratories recently discovered important properties of plant transport proteins that, collectively, could have a profound impact on global agriculture. They report in the May 2nd issue of the journal Nature that the application of their findings could help the world meet its increasing demand for food and fuel as the global population grows from seven billion people to an estimated nine billion by 2050.

“These membrane transporters are a class of specialized proteins that plants use to take up nutrients from the soil, transport sugar and resist toxic substances like salt and aluminum,” said Julian Schroeder, a professor of biology at UC San Diego who brought together 11 other scientists from Australia, Japan, Mexico, Taiwan, the U.S. and the U.K. to collaborate on a paper describing how their discoveries collectively could be used to enhance sustainable food and fuel production.

 

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Schroeder, who is also co-director of a new research entity at UC San Diego called  Food and Fuel for the 21st Century, which is designed to apply basic research on plants to sustainable food and biofuel production, said many of the recent discoveries in his and other laboratories around the world had previously been “under the radar”—known only to a small group of plant biologists—but that by disseminating these findings widely, the biologists hoped to educate policy makers and speed the eventual application of their discoveries to global agriculture.

“Of the present global population of seven billion people, almost one billion are undernourished and lack sufficient protein and carbohydrates in their diets,” the biologists write in their paper. “An additional billion people are malnourished because their diets lack required micronutrients such as iron, zinc and vitamin A. These dietary deficiencies have an enormous negative impact on global health resulting in increased susceptibility to infection and diseases, as well as increasing the risk of significant mental impairment. During the next four decades, an expected additional two billion humans will require nutritious food. Along with growing urbanization, increased demand for protein in developing countries coupled with impending climate change and population growth will impose further pressures on agricultural production.”