Planning food for the future

An Israeli company sets out to ensure a constant global food supply by developing seeds that can withstand the toughest environmental conditions.

algae for biofuel_58 (photo credit: Courtesy)
algae for biofuel_58
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Each day, there are more mouths to feed on earth – and less food with which to feed them. Blame it on global warming, an impending ice age, the Mayan calendar or an impending alien invasion, the bottom line is that drought, flood and unseasonable temperatures – all in the wrong place at the wrong time – are wreaking havoc on the world’s food supply.
And as if the climate- and weather-related shortages weren’t enough, we now have two billion people in China and India who, having tasted of the fruits of the Western life, are no longer satisfied with fruit – or other vegetarian delicacies. They want meat (beef, pork, lamb and chicken), and feeding all that livestock is further taxing grain supplies – resulting in sky-high prices for basic commodities, to the point where there is a real fear that the poorest of the Third World poor may end up starving.
Since denizens of wealthier Western (and now Eastern) nations have shown little willingness to change their diets for the sake of poor people on the other side of the world (or the other side of town, for that matter), the matter of increasing food production has fallen to scientists, who have come through time and again. Thanks to the “green revolution” of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, grain production grew tremendously, and even as the world population grew as well, the average calorie intake for even the poorest people increased by about 25 percent.
But the revolution, which was based on increased use of water, more effective pesticides, and hardier strains of grain and cereal, isn’t what it used to be. Freshwater is hard to come by in many parts of the world – where it is needed most – and bugs aren’t as sensitive to pesticides as they used to be. And of course, there’s the odd weather; without sufficient rainfall in season (as in China and Russia in recent years), or too much precipitation (as in the US Midwest), the revolution seems to have reached its limits, some scientists believe.
So is the world on the verge of mass starvation? Maybe, but not if Israel’s Rosetta Green has anything to say about it. This Israeli company specializes in developing the “fruits of the future” – seeds for grains, cereals, tubers, and fruits and vegetables that can withstand the toughest environmental conditions.
“We believe that we can tell a potato to expect to be watered once or twice per month instead of once or twice a week by increasing the microRNA component responsible for water absorption and usage in the potato,” says Rosetta Green CEO Amir Avniel by way of example.
SCIENTISTS FIRST found out about micro- RNA (miRNA) in the 1990s, but were not sure of their role until about a decade ago. It turns out that miRNA regulate gene expression; these molecules are considered the master regulators of the genome, and a single miRNA can regulate entire networks of genes.
In plants, as well as in mammals, miRNA play important roles in regulating key traits and major pathways. Rosetta Green is in the business of searching out, understanding, classifying – and putting to work – miRNA.
“These miRNA can be marshaled to improve the results of crop growth, going beyond the gene revolution,” says Avniel. By manipulating the genes for, say, abiotic stress – resistance to drought, high temperatures, etc. – miRNA can produce hardier and sturdier crops of all kinds, ensuring that more plants survive to maturity, to the extent that crop yields can be considerably increased under stressful conditions.
“We are one of the few companies in the world working in this area, and our tests have shown that by ‘promoting’ specific miRNA, we can achieve significant results,” says Avniel. As a result, the company’s research is much in demand, and Rosetta Green works with collaborators, improving key traits in wheat, potato, castor bean, algae, tomato, trees and more.
Besides producing food, Rosetta Green’s technology can be used to enhance components of plants being developed for biofuel.
The company has been experimenting with a number of plants, including castor bean, jatropha (a hardy plant with a very high seed oil content), soybeans, corn, sugar cane and sorghum. By developing strains of plants for use in biofuel production, Rosetta Green’s technology can extract the maximum amount of oil from crops being raised specifically for that purpose, allowing farmers to reserve other, perhaps higher-nutrition crops specifically for food purposes.
Established in 2007, Rosetta Green started out as a subsidiary of Rosetta Genomics, and is a public company traded on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange. Along with enhancing crops to thrive in harsh environments, Rosetta Green is working on applications that would let plants use fertilizers more efficiently.
Scientists have learned that plants utilize only about 30% to 70% of the fertilizer applied to them during their life cycle, requiring excessive use of fertilizers – with their attendant runoff responsible for major environmental damage. If less fertilizer could be used to achieve the same results, the environment would be that much safer – and Rosetta Green has identified miRNA that correlate with improved fertilizer-use efficiency in corn and soybeans, with research continuing in other plants.
MiRNA can even be used to improve the nutrient content and taste of produce, and the fiber content of vegetables.
Tastier vegetables, healthier oil seeds, improved cotton fibers and much more – these are the gifts miRNA can give to humanity, and Rosetta Green is hard at work figuring out how to use each one most effectively.