How do we go about increasing agricultural crop yields? As long as human populations are increasing, this is the primary challenge we face in agriculture. We must do this without threatening our ability to produce food in the future, and, if possible, without expansion of agricultural land (see graph below, from The Return of Nature; How Technology Liberates the Environment).
It said on the screen, “Bioregenerating Soil-Based Space Agriculture.” The title of the talk was “Beyond Intensification.” The speaker, a prominent researcher and prolific author, is someone who I thought would present clear thinking on how, in addition to intensification of current agriculture, we can go about producing enough food for the earth’s growing population. I glanced around to see if anyone else was astonished. Space farming, he said, was the next step after agricultural intensification with food coming from the Moon and Mars. “Has it come to that?” I thought. I am a fan of science fiction. Not a costumed, Trekkie-conference fan, but a fan. However, over the years, I have realized that the stories I enjoy most are mostly fiction; the science is often ignored. This is “soft” science fiction, the stuff of most Sci-Fi movies because there is a way to visit distant planets; think warp drives
“Mutation. It is the key to our evolution. It has enabled us to evolve from a single-celled organism into the dominant species on the planet. This process is slow and normally taking thousands and thousands of years. But every few hundred millennia, evolution leaps forward.” – Professor Xavier I love that quote from X-Men. Other than the last sentence, it’s true. Mutations happen at a fairly constant rate and can occur every time a cell divides. Although we tend to think of mutations as negative events associated with genetic diseases or cancer, some mutations are beneficial: in our species, mutations have allowed for adaptation to high altitude in Tibetans or have protected individuals from heart disease. The same is true in nature: mutations allow for plants to develop resistance to pests, or in the case of weeds, to pesticides. However, as Professor Xavier points out in the opening credits of the movie,
Honeybee Colony Collapse Disorder has always interested me, because I’m interested in insect pathology – and this is probably the most important insect-pathology related event we’ll see in our lifetimes. I’ve written about CCD here at Biofortified, first in my post Colony Collapse Disorder: an Introduction. I followed this up with Are Neonicotinoids the Cause of Colony Collapse Disorder, where I talked about why the pesticide topic was a lot more complicated than neonicotinoid topic alone. I’ve not been happy with media narratives which focus exclusively on neonicotinoids, because I think the picture is a lot more complicated than one group of pesticides. There are a lot of things which make bees sick, and a lot of these things change the social structure of bees in ways which are negative for the health of the colony. Honeybees also have problems finding food in many areas, which makes these problems worse.
Gene editing has been getting a lot of attention lately, with an increasing number of articles about this method in the media. In this post, I’ll provide a very high level overview of the method (please note that many molecules and enzymes will be omitted for the sake of simplicity). Most of the information here is from a 2014 review entitled “Development and Applications of CRISPR-Cas9 for Genome Engineering” from the journal Cell (unfortunately behind a paywall). As you can imagine, gene editing is somewhat of a holy grail. To erase undesired mutations in DNA would be a dream for many clinicians/doctors. But there are many different applications besides erasing what we don’t want. We could introduce variations that we do want: creating an animal model for a disease, developing crops with desired traits, etc.