“The science that will transform our future.”

This blog post was written last month for a science communication competition, in which we had to write an article about the science that we thought would transform our future.

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The art of science has changed dramatically over the last 100 years, and it continues to change and evolve as time passes, and as we gather more information about the world. From Isaac Newton’s discovery of gravity, to Gregor Mendel’s realisation of the rules of genetics using humble garden peas, to Charles Darwin’s proposal of the theory of evolution, science encompasses so many different topics, and each of them are all applicable to our lives in one form or another. But have you ever wonder how many scientific discoveries can be attributed to plants? Plants have helped shape the world, and are necessary for survival. The things that are possible with plants are boundless, and here are just a few of their potentials.

As more land is being used up for infrastructure, housing, mining and agriculture, the race is on to find suitable land for raising even more livestock and growing crops to cope with rising population numbers. When all the suitable fertile land is expended, we will have to turn to less fertile land or brownfield sites contaminated with hazardous wastes, such as deserts or abandoned mines, respectively. If it were possible to produce crops on these soils, it would both jeopardise their health and yield. The use of genetically modified (GM) crops, aquaponics, and phytoremediation are three possible solutions to this problem.

Although heavily controversial, GM has the ability to transform global agriculture, by increasing crop yield and tolerance to saline soils, drought conditions, toxic metals or pesticides. A really good example of how genetic modification was successful can be seen with the case of drought-tolerant barley. Scientists from the John Innes Centre, alongside the University of Jordan developed a barley variety that is four times as drought tolerant than its parent stock. Dr Wendy Harwood, at the John Innes, explained that due to poor water availability in many countries, GM can definitely make a positive impact, especially when we consider that approximately 70% of global water is used for agriculture. They were able to identify a gene that regulates opening and closing of stomata, the small pores on leaf surfaces. The gene was subsequently altered so that during times of water scarcity, the stomata would close, thus avoiding water loss through these pores, and therefore being more drought resilient.

Plants also have natural abilities to adapt to environmental changes and develop new tolerance strategies. Phytoremediation, the use of plants to clean up both soils and water of toxic waste metals, has shown to be a promising technology, not to mention environmentally friendly. The most commonly used method is phyotextraction, where plants accumulate heavy metals from soils, which are then extracted and safely treated. These hyperaccumulator plants absorb metals, chemically bind them to organic compounds, and sequester these modified compounds in storage vessels within their cells, thus avoiding metal poisoning and damage. A high biomass and ability to accumulate metals quickly and efficiently are the two most desirable traits in a hyperaccumulator. This can be further enhanced by using genetic modification to generate plants more tolerant to toxic waste substances, and modify their uptake and regulation in the plant.

Deserts or areas of soil infertility could still be used to grow crops without the excessive need for fertilisers with the help of aquaponics. It combines the raising of aquatic animals, such as freshwater fish (aquaponics), with growing plants in water (hydroponics). The plants get their necessary nutrients from the aquaculture effluent which is fed into the hydroponic system. Any organic matter in the water is broken down by nitrification bacteria, which convert ammonia into nitrates for plants to absorb. Once the water has been stripped of its nutrients, it is oxygenated and recycled back into the aquaculture tank. This system has been successful with several vegetable varieties, including lettuce, tomatoes and peppers benefiting from this symbiotic environment.

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Aquaponics growing system

None of these three technologies are perfect, and they lend themselves to further study; but the possibilities are endless. This is an opportunity to use science to counteract climate change and improve lives through increasing food provisions to avoid malnutrition and starvation.

But in the meantime, it’s back to the lab.