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Researchers Just Solved One of the Biggest Problems for World Hunger

Researchers Just Solved One of the Biggest Problems for World Hunger thumbnail

Planet Earth is doomed with a fast growing global population and a limited amount of farmland to produce food for everyone. That means that we’re going to need to figure out how to maximize what we’ve got—and researchers just made a major breakthrough in getting the most from our crops.

Biologists from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory have come up with a new agricultural technique which they say increases their crop yields by an incredible 50 percent. The key, they say, lies in figuring out how to use an existing genetic mutation that’s been creating some really weird-looking ears of corn.

Satellite photos of farms in Brazil, Image: NASA’s Earth Observatory

Scientists have long suspected the existence of a genetic pathway that acts like a set of brakes on a growing corn plant and stop an ear of corn before it got too big. As outlined in a new paper in Nature Genetics, researchers finally identified that pathway. And what’s more exciting is that they’ve figured out how to use it.

The team was able to identify plants with a fea3 mutation that essentially removes the brakes that stop an ear of corn from growing. The results, however, were not quite what you’d expected. Instead of giant ears of super corn, researchers found that plants with the mutation produced small, misshapen ears.

“The plant makes far too many stem cells, and they give rise to too many new seeds—seeds the plant cannot support with available resources (light, moisture, nutrients),” lead author David Jackson explained in a statement. While lots of kernels initially started to form on the ears with that fea3 mutation, the unchecked early growth made the plant so heavy that it collapsed under its own weight. In the end, the ears were actually smaller, and had fewer fully developed kernels than the ears without the mutation.

Still, figuring out how the mutation worked was enough to give the researchers an idea: perhaps a more muted version of the mutation could give them more kernels of corn but not so many that it killed the ear.

Researchers were soon able to generate a weaker version of that same fea3 mutation—and found that not only did the ears survive, they were considerably bigger than normal ears. The ears were so much bigger that researchers estimate that, on average, an ear of corn with the weak mutation was throwing down 50 percent more kernels of corn (with no other changes to the growing process) than they’d seen previously.

A comparison of two fea3 mutation corn ears with other “normal” ears. Image: Jackson Laboratory, CSHL

The implications of this research are much bigger than just a little extra corn, though. Similar “brakeless” mutations have also been seen in most of the world’s other staple crops. This suggests that a similar process could work to bump up their yields as well.

“If the yield increases we have seen in our lab strains hold out when used in agricultural maize strains this would lead to a significant boost in yields, potentially improving agricultural sustainability by requiring less land be devoted to agriculture,” Jackson told Gizmodo. “The same approaches could also benefit farmers in developing countries growing a wide range of crops.”

If it works, it could give us a way to feed much more of the world, without planting new farms.


30 Comments on "Researchers Just Solved One of the Biggest Problems for World Hunger"

  1. Boat on Tue, 17th May 2016 7:41 am 

    Now if Monsanto could work with it a few years we might have something.

  2. makati1 on Tue, 17th May 2016 7:43 am 

    Two heads are better than one? This ad brought to you by Monsanto. LOL

    More techie bullshit. Obviously there is a genetic aberration that produces things like these and lambs with 6 legs and two headed humans. Do we really want to experiment with such things?

    Not on my farm we don’t. Heirloom only.

  3. onlooker on Tue, 17th May 2016 7:47 am 

    Too little too late for current denizens of Earth. Nice try. Oh and if Mother Nature was ready to dwindle our numbers, I would have to opine that this is a bad idea. Not the corn but being able to further grow our population. More poverty, more lack of basic essentials for more people. Basically more suffering. Of course it is all hypothetical our current monstrous population along with our penchant to want to live “good” simply is now a force that Mother Nature cannot and will not tolerate.

  4. meld on Tue, 17th May 2016 8:00 am 

    Once again scientists not understanding how nature works. These plants will be much weaker and require more energy intensive methods to look after, they’ll probably fail more often too.

    Nature has been using evolution for millions of years to arrive at oragnisms that exist in equilibrium, then some scientist comes along and thinks he can do better, uh no, just no,

  5. onlooker on Tue, 17th May 2016 8:06 am 

    But of course Meld, the tech freaks and cornies will say Human Ingenuity can solved anything. They think humans are God haha.

  6. Davy on Tue, 17th May 2016 8:51 am 

    Let’s see them put it out in the field and see how this all shakes out after 5 years. A 50% increase in yield is sensationalism and should right there tell you this is a snake oil advert. We still have the issue with inputs. If you are going to produce 50% more product your inputs must go up significantly. We are in an age of limits of growth with chemicals, fuels, and soil/water degradation. Development is eating up land. This is just more of the techie religion preaching “we can overcome”. Corn is only one of the basics of the food chain. These ideas have not even been proven with corn let alone all the other crops and vegetables needed to feed the world.

    The simple truth is we have forces that are going to reverse productivity growth and eventually shrink yields and aggregate harvests. I have run a farm as a business. This was a million dollar operation back in 2000 and I can tell you how significant the weather is to a farm business. I had two flood events and a drought in the 4 years I was in the business. I was able to get in and out without losing my ass but barely. This was a working investment operation so my livelihood did not depend on it. I had two partners that each had special skills. This was quality land being in the Missouri River bottoms in central Missouri. Climate change is going to disrupt normal farming as we have known it. If one thinks that will be manageable then think again because variability and extremes is just what you don’t want in farming and that is what it appears climate change will be.

    The other issue is peak oil dynamics and the reduction of the economic benefits of oil in the economy. Oil and farming are directly linked so this phenomenon will happen with food just the same. We have all the issues of chemicals and inputs that will be under pressure from a disrupted oil complex. High or low prices causing instability with supply and demand variability affecting crop prices. If we have oil supply issues the all-important segment of agriculture which is distribution will be a very dangerous economic condition. Crops will rot in the field with people hungry in the cities. An unhealthy economy means a poor price for crops. Farming is an expensive business enterprise. It is a little bit like the oil business in the scale and the resulting product. It is global and it is intensive. You can go broke quickly in industrial agriculture just like oil.

    I am so thankful I have downsized my life and now do permaculture cattle and goats raising and selling cow calves and meat goats. I am thinking about doing some dairy goats and my Italian wife wants to make cheese. This is a grass fed operation. I have the garden, orchard, and grapes. I am about to purchase a high tunnel green house. This will be carbonite instead of plastic film. I am doing chickens and might get into rabbits. I am going the other way and that is downsizing with dignity and moving closer to nature. We have wildlife to harvest and plenty of natural plants, berries, and nuts to harvest. I am moving off the grid and collecting hand tools and implements for animal power. Is this going to get me through a collapse? It will help that is for sure at least in the beginning. We have no idea how any of this is going to play out. The biggest plus for me is I love what I am doing. I am so glad I am not a retiree on a golf course in Phoenix.

  7. steveo on Tue, 17th May 2016 8:57 am 

    I suspect these plants are going to require increased nitrogen and phosphate at least proportional to their increased yield. If that’s the case, this is not an effective solution since it will require more fossil fuel based fertilizers.

    Hey Monsanto, how about spicing a nitrogen fixing gene into corn so that you don’t have to dump tons of ammonia on it?

  8. PracticalMaina on Tue, 17th May 2016 10:41 am 

    Steveo, good point. It also looks like dent corn which is animal feed. So we are gonna feed over 7 billion with cheap beef? That sounds like a good way to make enough methane to be able to spark our atmosphere up like the Hindenburg.

  9. PracticalMaina on Tue, 17th May 2016 10:42 am 

    Also the 2 varietys on the left will grow better in drought conditions. Hybrid crops have shorter roots and are therefore more vulnerable.

  10. Apneaman on Tue, 17th May 2016 10:48 am 

    First, Planet Earth is NOT doomed and has never been under threat. The Humans? – now they’re the ones that are doomed. Isn’t more than enough food the problem to begin with?

    If I had children and I wished for them to live as long as possible and then pass on the genes, I would hope for mass starvation/less competition. I know it seem like a stretch now if your fat N white N corny, but we could fall over a Seneca cliff any day,month,year and it will be too late to prep then.

    You farmer types might know, but isn’t the plants potential growth based, at least in part, on the amount of nutrients it takes in? What I’m asking is how big can it grow with out adding more fertilizer?

    Don’t irrigation levels help determine yields as well?

    Water situation is becoming harsh in many areas and I know of nowhere (in general) that farmers have not had to take measures recently and/or gone with less.

  11. onlooker on Tue, 17th May 2016 11:09 am 

    We won’t ever destroy Earth. The earth has been around for ~4.5 billion years, and seen a lot more drama than our puny species.

  12. GregT on Tue, 17th May 2016 11:20 am 

    The Earth has all of the time in the world. We do not. Our species is not in control of the Earth, as much as we like to believe that we are. Human exceptionalism is leading us down the path to our own demise. If we don’t learn how to stop being parasitic, our host will shed us off like fleas on a dog.

  13. Anonymous on Tue, 17th May 2016 11:36 am 

    Great, just what ‘we’ need. More HFCS in our diets. I think the end result of this innovation will be a 50% increase in the number of american lardasses sucking and choking down HFCS cola and potato chips.

    Couple other things.

    -I wasn’t aware there was a fucking corn shortage. If anything, ‘we’ produce way too much of that shit now.
    -Corn is bad for you. Really. Humans don’t digest it very well, and animals don’t like it either. ‘We’ use it as feed for animals that we grow for food. Eating corn makes animals feed that shit sickly and unhealthy. And that is BEFORE uS corporate-food loads them up with all sorts of mystery antibiotics.
    -This ‘discovery’ would lead to more nutrient and soil depletion. Which means more carpet bombing of the soil to grow this franken-corn. IoW,It will kill the soil. Opps, too late I guess, we already killed the soil growing all the ‘low-tech’ corn.

    I volunteer BOAT as test subject. Let him have all the monsanto-patented all-HFCS ‘food’ he can stuff down his maw. Free of charge.

  14. PracticalMaina on Tue, 17th May 2016 12:15 pm 

    This article is pretty dramatic in its description of the massive effects of aerosol in our air on peoples health, especially kids. It finds agriculture to be the largest generator of the aerosols.

  15. Tom S on Tue, 17th May 2016 1:39 pm 

    Corn porn?

    -Tom S

  16. penury on Tue, 17th May 2016 2:34 pm 

    Novel suggestion. Instead of increasing food production, let’s quit making humans. Mission accomplished.

  17. Dredd on Tue, 17th May 2016 3:43 pm 

    “… That means that we’re going to need to figure out how to maximize what we’ve got …”

    A.k.a. “treating the effect rather than solving the problem which is overpopulation.

    Growing more x is doomed to failure.

    Don’t put a baby in the bathwater (The Bathtub Model Doesn’t Hold Water – 2).

    Stop re re re re re searching and do some finding instead.

  18. Go Speed Racer on Tue, 17th May 2016 4:32 pm 

    What a corny idea. Bet it tastes awful. Farmers growing the Monsanto products, they also grow a small natural garden patch for feeding their own family.

  19. joe on Wed, 18th May 2016 12:22 am 

    Lets say it works, it disrupts the current market. The new seed will be used to boost yeilds and will be sold as feed for the growing global appitite for meat. This feed has nothing to do with feeding hungry people and everything to do with making profit.
    The world already produces enough food to feed itself, people are hungry because of how we distribute food and how producers profit.

  20. Boat on Wed, 18th May 2016 12:32 am 


    Same with oil. Billions are to poor to own an engine. There has to be profit or nothing gets sold over the long term.

  21. GregT on Wed, 18th May 2016 1:10 am 

    The Boat non-sensical quote of the day:

    “Billions are to poor to own an engine. There has to be profit or nothing gets sold over the long term.”

  22. stevenj on Wed, 18th May 2016 3:58 am 

    energy in = energy out. So all the bigger corn does is either deplete the soil faster or it will require more fertilizer and water to feed it, bound to work.

  23. Anonymous on Wed, 18th May 2016 4:24 am 

    I guess ‘Boat’ is too dense to grasp the idea being put forward by its proponents. The stated goal, is that franken-corn is being developed to ‘feed starving people’. This is nonsense of course. The uS produces plenty of surplus franken-foods NOW, yet has millions going hungry or on the edge of it in their own backyard. Despite no actual ‘shortages’ of any kind. The real rationale, is to make paper profits, reduce costs, not feed people. If articles like this, and uS food monopolies would just come out and say that, instead of pretending its about ‘feeding starving people’, somewhere, at least the conversation would an honest one.

    Of course, ‘boat’ here is clearly of the ‘If they can’t afford our franken-foods, let em eat cake’ school.

    At least he is somewhat more honest about his empires motivations than the authors of this article. At least boat is willing to freely admit it was never about feeding any hungry people. Which of course, is highly un-usual. Most of his nation’s ilk love to wrap their power and profit motives in the most saintly of terms…

  24. Davy on Wed, 18th May 2016 6:32 am 

    If you know corn as I do then you will understand corn as it was with the Native Americans was the best. It was planted in small plots and rotated continuously. It was honored and cherished spiritually. It is that type of connection that yields good food. Its nutritional value and taste was so far above our corn. It was also large but large with nutritional substance. We are going in the wrong direction in every direction especially with food. What we are doing to corn is no different than what we are doing with the mechanization of animal husbandry. It is a crime against nature with what we are doing to other animals. It is a crime against ourselves that we are doing this to nature and to ourselves. It will end because there is a limit to how far a species can distort and drive its niche without causing an ecosystem break. We are very close to that point and corn is just an example of this cumulative process.

  25. JN2 on Wed, 18th May 2016 6:46 am 

    Joe said “people are hungry because of how we distribute food and how producers profit.”

    Maybe time for a global basic income. Can you help? $30 per month?

  26. JuanP on Wed, 18th May 2016 8:21 am 

    I know absolutely nothing about growing non organic corn commercially. I have never engaged in such biosphere damaging activities in my life. I do grow corn organically on a very small scale. Right now I have an 8′ X 4′ raised bed with 128 non GMO heirloom organic corn growing mostly for demonstration purposes at one of the gardens. I plant four corn plants per square foot. I bury one dead fish in the holes at planting time like the indians did. The garden kids love helping with the corn planting every year, it is dirty and smelly, and all the moms go crazy. Some kids bring fish they caught and I provide the rest. This is a great way to use fish you’d rather not eat and fish scraps.

    I grow purple Mexican corn from Chiapas. Two friends of mine gifted me the original seeds on their return from volunteering in a Permaculture project helping the indians over there some years ago. This corn had been grown in that area since before Colón discover America. I have been regrowing the same corn for years now from my own seed. I took some of my seeds to Uruguay, too, and it is also being grown down there now.

    More GMO crops are not going to solve anything. The noose is ready and we are just greasing the rope to hang ourselves. I am so glad that I had a Vasectomy and no children. I pity the people that have kids and grandkids, what a horribly selfish and unreasonable thing to do.

  27. JuanP on Wed, 18th May 2016 8:25 am 

    JN2, I used to donate to charity and help the poor a lot. I don’t anymore because I realized that it was counterproductive. Human beings need to experience hunger, poverty, misery, and suffering since most of them can’t learn otherwise. You’d be helping them more by stealing from them than by feeding them or giving them money.

  28. Kenz300 on Wed, 18th May 2016 8:37 am 

    Endless population growth is not sustainable…….maybe the answer is to slow population growth………

    Too many people……….create too much pollution and demand too many resources….

    China made great progress in moving its people out of poverty…….one reason was slowing population growth…..

    If you can not provide for yourself you can not provide for a child.

    CLIMATE CHANGE, declining fish stocks, droughts, floods, air water and land pollution, poverty, water and food shortages all stem from the worlds worst environmental problem……. OVER POPULATION.

    Yet the world adds 80 million more mouths to feed, clothe, house and provide energy and water for every year… this is unsustainable… and is a big part of the Climate Change problem

    Birth Control Permanent Methods: Learn About Effectiveness

  29. theedrich on Thu, 19th May 2016 2:00 am 

    More corn for more people.  Well, according to a recent (May 2016) appeal from Zero Population Growth,

    – Every second of every day, our global population grows by 2.7 people.
    – In 2015, the average person lived 70 years, whereas in 1968 the average life expectancy was 55.
    – Each year, there are 877,376 unplanned births in the U.S.
    – At the current rate of growth, the population of the least-developed countries will double in less than 30 years.
    – Today, about 663 million people lack access to improved drinking water — that’s about 9% of our world’s population.

    ZPG’s Marian Starkey reported about the Philippines that “the population in 1950 totaled 18.6 million people.  Today it’s over 100 million.”

    It’s so nice that some researchers have found a way to expand the supply of corn to expand the global population.  It would be even nicer if our corrupt lawmakers would stop using the U.S. as an overflow basin for the multiplying sludge of the Third World.  Because there is no way White civilization can continue to exist in a world swamped by muds.  And once the Whites give up and are drowned, the savages will take over and turn the world into the sewer they have made of their own birthplaces.  Yes, creatures like the man-ape will rejoice, but the cosmological purpose of this planet — to develop high intelligence — will be finished for good.  Our earth will have failed.

  30. PracticalMaina on Thu, 19th May 2016 8:12 am 

    This is just more Monsanto bs propaganda because of the World Health Organization recently labeled glycophosphate a likely carcinogen. Since then the UN came out and said that they were not likely to harm people or the environment, apparently the chair and co chair had conflicts of interest and were members of another group that had accepted money from Monsanto.
    The propaganda is strong from that company..and the UN.
    Is that Donny Trump commenting above me? Sorry you have small hands and small manhood Donny, its not the minorities fault, its genetics.

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