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Meeting Crop Research Challenges in the Next Century

By Jan Suszkiw
December 23, 1999

Across the country, Agricultural Research Service scientists continue to explore new ways to make sure 21st century crops will meet humankind’s voracious food, fiber and fuel needs.

At ARS scientist Don Ort’s Photosynthesis Research Lab, in Urbana, Ill., the effort begins with tweaking the biochemical machinery by which plants make their food. But not all plants carry out photosynthesis to their full potential.

Soybeans, for example, rely on the enzyme rubisco to capture carbon dioxide, a basic carbohydrate building block. Along with CO2, soybean’s rubisco also captures oxygen. This happens about 20 percent of the time--but not if Urbana researchers can intervene. With biotechnology, they’re genetically replacing soybean’s natural rubisco with an enzyme filched from green algae. If successful, the “switch” could enable soybean plants to capture CO2 more quickly, improving photosynthetic efficiency.

Ort’s lab isn’t the only one exploring new ways to fortify 21st century crops. New Orleans-based researcher Peter Cotty, for example, is perfecting a biopesticide to battle Aspergillus fungi. Certain Aspergillus species can contaminate cotton and other seed with aflatoxin, a potent carcinogen. Cotton growers and processors can suffer losses when seed contamination levels exceed federal limits for human and animal safety. In some spray tests, the biopesticide reduced aflatoxin contamination by 90 percent, and awaits commercial registration.

At the ARS Vegetable Lab, led by Autar Mattoo in Beltsville, Md., researchers are improving the nutritional offerings of vegetable crops. With biotechnology and conventional breeding, they’ve produced new tomato lines rich in beta carotene, and lycopene, an antioxidant.

At Fort Collins, Colo., ARS’ National Seed Storage Lab is home to a collection of 327,236 specimens of seed and other plant materials. Practiced in the art of plant cryopreservation, researchers there can extend a seed’s life span for hundreds of years, helping secure genetic diversity for tomorrow’s crops.

A longer article about 21st century plant research appears in the December issue of Agricultural Research magazine. Click here to view it on the web.

ARS is the chief scientific agency in the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Contact: To reach scientists mentioned in this story, contact Jan Suszkiw, ARS Information Staff, Beltsville, Md., phone (301) 504-1630, fax (301) 504-1641,