“Simply increasing inorganic fertilizer use and water supply or applying organic farming systems to agriculture will be unable to satisfy the joint requirements of increased yield and environmental sustainability,” the scientists added. “Increasing food production on limited land resources will rely on innovative agronomic practices coupled to the genetic improvement of crops.”

One of Schroeder’s research advances led to the discovery of a sodium transporter that plays a key role in protecting plants from salt stress, which causes major crop losses in irrigated fields, such as those in the California central valley.  Agricultural scientists in Australia, headed by co-author Rana Munns and her colleagues, have now utilized this type of sodium transporter in breeding research to engineer wheat plants that are more tolerant to salt in the soil, boosting wheat yields by a whopping 25 percent in field trials. This recent development could be used to improve the salt tolerance of crops, so they can be grown on previously productive farmland with soil that now lies fallow.

Another recent discovery, headed by co-authors Emanuel Delhaize in Australia and Leon Kochian at Cornell University, opens up the potential to grow crops on the 30 percent of the earth’s acidic soils that are now unusable for agricultural production, but that otherwise could be ideal for agriculture.

“When soils are acidic, aluminum ions are freed in the soil, resulting in toxicity to the plant,” the scientists write. “Once in the soil solution, aluminum damages the root tips of susceptible plants and inhibits root growth, which impairs the uptake of water and nutrients.”

From their recent findings, the plant biologists now understand how transport proteins control processes that allow roots to tolerate toxic aluminum. By engineering crops to convert aluminum ions into a non-toxic form, they said, agricultural scientists can now turn these unusable or low-yielding acidic soils into astonishingly productive farmland to grow crops for food and biofuels.

Other recent transport protein developments described by the biologists have been shown to increase the storage of iron and zinc in food crops to improve their nutritive qualities. “Over two billion people suffer from iron and zinc deficiencies because their plant-based diets are not a sufficiently rich source of these essential elements,” the biologists write.

The scientists also discovered transporters in plants and symbiotic soil fungi that allow crops to acquire phosphate—an element essential for plant growth and crop yield—more efficiently and to increase the uptake of nitrogen fertilizers, which are costly to produce. “Nitrogen fertilizer production consumes one percent of global energy usage and poses the highest input cost for many crops,” the scientists write. “Nevertheless, only 20 to 30 of the phosphate and 30 to 50 percent of the nitrogen fertilizer applied are utilized by plants. The remainder can lead to production of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide, or to eutrophication of aquatic ecosystems through water run-off.”