Plant Transport Proteins: Stand and Deliver

700 million years. If that sounds like a long time…it is. If you’re a member of the plant kingdom, that’s how long you’ve had to figure out how to maximize your chances of survival. Today, humans are in the fortunate position of being able to leverage all that green wisdom for the health and longevity of our own species—and the search for a sustainable way to feed ourselves on a continually shrinking planet.

In the next 40 years or so the Earth’s population will be about 10 billion people. The current human diet, even given its global variety, is going to need much more arable land (land that is itself healthy enough to produce nutritious food) to feed those 10 billion, and that doesn’t look like it’s going to be possible. It’s simple math. Something’s gotta give. Fortunately, that something is coming from our pals in the plant kingdom. Our indomitable plant friends, whether blossoming happily through cracks in a sidewalk or carpeting a country meadow, have been working on themselves over the eons, building micro-strategies that just may be the ticket for feeding the future’s crowded world.  It’s all about Plant Transport Proteins. When there’s trouble, these proteins send help to the embattled parts of the plan in a hurry.

Sow, Reap, Sow, Reap, Repeat.

As we sow and harvest from the same agricultural tracts over and over, it has a weakening effect on soil, due in part to the buildup of salts and metals. This buildup is often caused by rising underground water tables. What the crops don’t drink during any given cycle “leaks” as extra water down to the water table, and when the water table fills and reaches up into the plant root zone, that rising waterbed is often heavy with salt and metallic toxins from the strata of rocks and minerals the water has risen through.

Cycle after cycle of this can make the soil so saline (a condition called sodicity) or acidic (a condition that loads the dirt with toxic aluminum ions), the plants have to work much harder to get the water into their roots. Water of a certain salinity also causes the stomata of a plant’s leaves—the breathing holes, basically— to shrink or close. When the soil is fatigued you get a plant that is hungry and can’t draw breath. These and other related conditions  are called plant stress, and don’t bode well for a smallish planet that will need to feed 3 billion more mouths with increasingly stressed agricultural resources.  Add to that problem the stunning waste of agricultural real estate that is given over to the hugely inefficient animal agriculture industry. Stressed and over-stretched agricultural areas are feeding a growing disaster.

Soil Enough to Feed a Growing Family

Like the cavalry arriving just in time, an international team of scientists is looking at boosting the naturally evolved survivability of plants to get more yield out of Earth’s exhausted surface. Empowered transport proteins, improved through natural cross-breeding of plant lines, will bring to plant roots and leaves an ability to tolerate toxic aluminum ions, and otherwise move a plant’s organic toxin-and-stress-resisting substances across cellular membranes to where a plant is threatened—think reinforcements rushing in a straight line to where the battle is most heated.

Whether defending against toxic soil or natural pests, these plant protein transports basically increase the plant’s tolerance for adverse conditions. We’ve long known that proteins in the human body, among many other weirdly varied tasks, move atoms around the body to where they are needed at any given time. It turns out plants do the same thing, but with much more survivalist panache. If you’re a beleaguered plant, “fight or flight” isn’t an option;  you stand and deliver. And plant transport proteins provide “stand your ground” armor like nobody’s business.

Help from a Determined Friend

Scientists are now excitedly investigating ways to carefully breed plants with the aim of maximizing this transport protein process.  The goal is to produce plants that can grow in exhausted soil environments, and even in the world’s huge tracts of naturally acidic and saline soils where it was previously thought food could never be grown. Ever. Nearly 1 billion people are starving in the world today, not always for complete lack of food. Nutritious food is the key, and you need healthy, rich soil to grow that food.

And where healthy soil isn’t available? We’ll roll in with a muscular little seedling that can shake life-giving sustenance from even the harshest, most stubborn dirt on the planet. It’s like this: the plants have figured this stuff out and are going to help us feed the fam. Apparently when you’ve been around for 700 million years, you just don’t take no for answer.


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