SciFi in Ag: No Field? No Problem. Reverse Engineering Plants
Editor’s Note: This column takes some crazy sounding ideas and applies them to the field of Ag Tech. The purpose of this is purely entertainment, but hey, if we can spread ideas or ignite imaginations, how awesome is that?
Volume 4 Article 1
Scientists just unlocked a key, previously unknown, component to photosynthesis.
Billions of years ago when plants had their heyday in evolution, the air was mostly carbon, and plants had no issues getting all the carbon they needed. It was the best time for plants. However, CO2 and O2 are very close molecularly, and the introduction of more O2 into the atmosphere meant that plants sometimes would confuse the two gasses. This confusion was problematic for the plant considering O2 is actually toxic for the plant. Over time, plants have built a way to deal with the toxicity of O2 and make use of it. While this adaptation is certainly helpful for the plant, it is troublesome for the amount of energy required by the plant to make the O2 conversion.
With the help of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, scientists have found a way to shortcut the pathways in the plant to make this O2 process much more efficient. This shortcut is relevant to us in ag as it promises to bring yields up to 40% higher on the crops scientists apply this technology to. Even more exciting, roughy US 180/bu/acre avg of corn would look more like 252–– just by this one advancement.
As this technology improves even further and our understanding of how photosynthesis takes place develops, there is serious potential for scientists to fully reverse engineer how a plant actually up takes the nutrients, photosynthesizes, and creates the desirable outcome (be it corn, soy, or a vegetable).
One current way in which reverse engineering of plants is being done is the production of “natural flavors.” Natural flavors are not actually natural (i.e. grape natural flavor wasn’t derived from crushing a bunch of grapes, and it’s not likely to get natural orange flavors by squeezing oranges all day). Nope, scientists reverse engineer how oranges actually produce their flavors, then mass produce the same chemical. It’s the same exact genetic makeup as what an orange produces, but it never came from an orange.
Scientists and food manufactures are already skipping the steps of needing to grow a plant in the first place in some cases, such as this production of natural flavors. Also notable in these situations is the FDA approval of these products to be called “natural.”
Skip the Plant
Stepping even further in the scientific direction that “natural flavors” are being created, there could be a time in which agriculture would no longer need millions of acres of land or soil to grow crops. For some crops, we may not even need to create the intermediate step of the crop itself. As an example, if we are looking for sunflower oil and we reverse engineer everything enough, we would not even have to create the inputs into the sunflower seed. We’d just process nitrogen, other micronutrients, and photosynthesize straight to the oil in a factory-like setting.
In a specific ethanol production cycle, ethanol plants could just tack on a new plant that takes in water, fertilizer (which conveniently can be made by converting thin stillage into methane at the ethanol plant already), micronutrients, and a photosynthesis machine to make cornmeal and pump right into the existing ethanol plant. No fields needed.
Overall, we are already skipping the plant in a few major ways. As we understand more of what is going on in this process, there could be a lot more of side stepping the plant to get to the end result. This means as generations go on, there could be less of a need to grow crops in fields (and they won’t even ask farmers permission).
Not outside the realm of possibility…