Skip to content

When you choose to publish with PLOS, your research makes an impact. Make your work accessible to all, without restrictions, and accelerate scientific discovery with options like preprints and published peer review that make your work more Open.

PLOS BLOGS The Official PLOS Blog

How to Feed the World? Synthetic Biologists and Sustainable Agriculture


Because the work of synthetic biologists is likely to underpin science’s contribution to future sustainability in agriculture, we’re pleased to put this recently launched Collection,  “The Promise of Plant Translational Research,” on the new PLOS Synthetic Biology Community Site.

BIO-Coll_Plant-Translational-Bio-061014Here’s why we created this collection, and what we hope to achieve. The human race has a very serious problem; so serious that millions will die unless we solve it. It all started about 10,000 years ago. Up until then we’d lived as hunter-gatherers, and our humble lifestyle limited our numbers. But then we started to explore the benefits of exploiting the land more effectively, andagriculture was born. This technological suite of seed collection, sowing, irrigation, weeding and harvest allowed the same land to support many more of us. Over the millennia we bred better crops (hexaploid wheat from emmer, maize from teosinte, paddy rice from Oryza rufipogon), systematically mechanised most aspects of the process (ox-drawn plough, seed drill, combine harvester), and artificially fertilised the soil (animal manure, the Haber process). And of course more food means more kids, and more kids need… You get the picture – a snowballing dependency on ever-improving the efficiency of our food production. All grown – by plants – using the solar energy that hits our finite planet.   Image Credit: Flickr user Frederic

Image Credit: Flickr user Frederic

The problem is that while population increases exponentially, food production increases only arithmetically. Seven billion souls – and counting – currently share our planet, with a projected population of nine billion by 2040. While the Green Revolutionof the late 20th century went some way to keeping productivity in pace with demand, feeding these extra mouths will require a substantial increase in agricultural output while competing with the burgeoning population for valuable land and water resources. Furthermore, if a population is able to achieve food security, along with health care and education, people will tend to limit family size of their own accord, keeping population in check. So working to achieve food security for the world’s billions offers a constructive way out of the debacle.

PLOS recognises that many of these problems (and the need for attendant solutions) impinge directly on those people and countries least able to break through the pay-wall that many scientific journals use to guard their content. For translational plant research, more than most fields, Open Access is crucial to maximise the availability and utility of research by those who need it most. We, and the rest of the scientific community, can facilitate information and knowledge exchange by promoting Open Access.

What our Collection aims to do is a) open up the debate about the urgent need for plant translational research, b) discuss the ways in which scientific research and technological advance can meet this need, and c) encourage the submission of such research to Open Access journals, like those of the PLOS family.

What can you do? Firstly, read the inaugural articles of the Collection that we’ve just published in PLOS Biology (see below). I’d recommend starting with the magnificently punchy Perspective by Ottoline Leyser, which lays out the scale of the problem and exhorts us to ignore red herrings and concentrate on the pressing task in hand.

Secondly, submit your translational plant research to one of our journals (PLOS BiologyPLOS PathogensPLOS GeneticsPLOS Computational Biology and PLOS ONE are the most relevant) and make sure that the people who need to read it can! We’re grateful to Jeffrey DanglSophien Kamoun and Susan McCouch, who as academic editors of the Collection have provided us with advice and guidance throughout, including helpful comments on this blog post. We’d also like to thank the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for supporting the Collection.

New articles in PLOS Biology published as part of “The Promise of Plant Translational Research”:

New Horizons for Plant Translational Research: Jeffrey Dangl, Sophien Kamoun, Susan McCouch and Jane Alfred present an overview of the Collection.

Moving beyond the GM debate: In this Perspective, Ottoline Leyser calls for the public to move on from the common logical fallacy that anything natural is good, and anything unnatural is bad, and addresses the misconception that GM, as a technique, is specifically and generically different from other crop genetic improvement techniques.

Genome Elimination: Translating Basic Research into a Future Tool for Plant Breeding: This Perspective by Luca Comai discusses the contribution of the late Simon Chan to the invention of genome elimination, and ponders the future of his approach as a way of streamlining the optimisation of plant genotype.

Finally, four Essays explore the technological basis and real-life application of genetic and genomic research, genome editing, whole-genome sequencing and metabolic engineering to the improvement of food crops:

Lab to Farm: Applying Research on Plant Genetics and Genomics to Crop Improvement by Pamela Ronald.

Precision Genome Engineering and Agriculture: Opportunities and Regulatory Challenges by Daniel Voytas and Caixia Gao.

Harvesting the Promising Fruits of Genomics: Applying Genome Sequencing Technologies to Crop Breeding: by Rajeev Varshney, Ryohei Terauchi and Susan McCouch.

Key Applications of Plant Metabolic Engineering by Warren Lau, Michael Fischbach, Anne Osbourn and Elizabeth Sattely.

About Roli Roberts

Brought up in Zambia, where I was home-schooled in the remote town of Mulobezi, I returned to the UK at the age of 11. I studied biochemistry at Oxford and did my PhD on the genetics of muscular dystrophy at Guy’s Hospital, London. After a post-doctoral fellowship in Boston I returned to the UK as lecturer and then senior lecturer at King’s College London. In 2011 I moved to a new life in science publishing. I’m now an associate editor at PLOS Biology, where I enjoy the combination of breadth of topic and open access ethic. All views are my own and don’t necessarily reflect those of PLOS.

Back to top