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Thursday, 18 December 2008

Agriculture of the future

Today:

  1. Agriculture goes urban and high-tech
  2. Plant Tweak Could Let Toxic Soil Feed Millions
Two very interesting articles. I actually thought they were more, but I probably have deleted something. Anyway, I think you'll appreciate them, since they both offer a new insights and opportunities for agriculture. On principle, I'm not such a fan of farmers, but those are science related and really interesting so...enjoy!

Agriculture goes urban and high-tech

The program run by the California State Polytechnic University agriculture professor Terry Fujimoto is part of a growing effort to use hydroponics -- a method of cultivating plants in water instead of soil -- to bring farming into cities, where consumers are concentrated.

Because hydroponic farming requires less water and less land than traditional field farming, Fujimoto and researchers-turned-growers in other U.S. cities see it as ideal to bring agriculture to apartment buildings, rooftops and vacant lots.

Supporters point to the environmental cost of trucking produce from farms to cities, the loss of wilderness for farmland to feed a growing world population insecure food chains as reasons for establishing urban hydroponic farms.

However, the expense of setting up the high-tech farms on pricey city land and providing enough year-round heat and light could present some insurmountable obstacles.

The roots of hydroponically produced fruits and vegetables can dangle in direct contact with water or be set in growing media such as sponges or shredded coconut shells. Most commercial operations pump water through sophisticated sensors that automatically adjust nutrient and acidity levels in the water.

The country's largest hydroponic greenhouse is Eurofresh Inc.'s 274-acre operation in southeastern Arizona, where more than 200 million pounds of tomatoes were produced in 2007.source

My comment: That's not so bad for a space station and also for countries where soil is scarcity. However, this technology must go with a complete water recycling technology, because water is much more scarce than soil. Also, notice how they served the production in hospitals. That's somewhat odd, after all they can load the plants with pretty much anything the want and if the production is too small to be controlled, that makes those patients simply test subjects.

Plant Tweak Could Let Toxic Soil Feed Millions

By Brandon Keim,October 02, 2008

Thanks to a genetic breakthrough, a large portion of Earth's now-inhospitable soil could be used to grow crops -- potentially alleviating one of the most pressing problems facing the planet's rapidly growing population.

Scientists at the University of California, Riverside made plants tolerant of poisonous aluminum by tweaking a single gene. This may allow crops to thrive in the 40 to 50 percent of Earth's soils currently rendered toxic by the metal.

Aluminum toxicity is a very limiting factor, because among agriculturally important plants, there are no mechanisms for aluminum tolerance.

In an effort to salvage currently infertile land, scientists have tried to understand the basic mechanisms of aluminum toxicity, and to find resistant food crops, but with little success. Larsen's research, published Thursday in Current Biology, could change that.

He identified a gene in Arabidopsis -- a flower used as a model organism in basic plant research -- that affects plants' sensitivity to aluminum. When the gene is modified, seedlings that would normally have died in aluminum-rich soils instead flourished.

There's no guarantee that the tweak will prove successful and safe -- but if it does, it could provide food for millions.

The gene appears to produce an enzyme that -- when exposed to aluminum -- stops cell division, preventing roots from growing.

Developing resistant plants may not be easy. Though defusing AlATR protected the plants' roots, it made their leaves more sensitive to radiation. But Larsen suggests a workaround: Engineer plants that express the modified gene only in their roots, not their leaves.

Kochian said that genetic engineering may not even be necessary. In so-called smart breeding, farmers use genome sequencing to identify plants with the best AlATR alleles, then breed those to create resistant strains.

Larsen is currently trying to patent the technique, and said that he'll make it available to researchers in the developing world. source

My comment: Ok, this is very interesting and probably important, but I have one question. Why plants won't grow in this soil? We know how they do it, by this gene, but we don't know why. What is the evolutionary advantage that lead to such genes. Aluminium for example is toxic to humans, what if that aluminium would pass from the plant to the production and kill or damage humans?It makes sense after all - those crops were made to feed humans and this is a nice mechanism to ensure they will grow in non-toxic soils- if the soil is toxic, the plant simply dies.

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