How will we produce enough food to support the world’s human population in a sustainable and safe way?

Crops (Credit:  Nicholas A. Tonelli/Flickr)Main Point:

PLOS Biology publishes new collection on The Promise of Plant Translational Research to tackle this issue.

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With the world’s human population predicted to reach 9 billion by 2040, the question of how will we produce enough food to support the world’s population in a sustainable and safe way is becoming increasingly urgent. Plant translational research – the leverage of basic scientific plant research discoveries into improving agriculture – has great potential to help address this challenge and ensure a brighter future for humanity.

To raise the importance of this issue and to galvanize the research community into producing high-quality studies aimed at tackling crop improvement, the Open Access journal PLOS Biology is publishing a new Collection of articles on June 10th –The Promise of Plant Translational Research.

The initial publication of this Collection comprises a set of seven articles that summarize the challenges, progress and prospects in this field, starting with an Editorial that introduces the Collection and outlines its objectives.

To remind us that technology is not the only challenge, a provocative Perspective by Ottoline Leyser of the University of Cambridge, “Moving beyond the GM Debate”, tackles the widespread societal resistance to genetic modification of crops head-on. In this piece, Prof. Leyser examines the common misconception that “anything natural is good, and anything unnatural is bad”, and casts the GM debate as an unfortunate diversion that threatens to distract us from the pressing need to use diverse technologies to avoid a global food shortage. She concludes: “The most frustrating thing about this situation is that almost everyone wants the same outcome: a reliable, sustainable, equitable supply of nutritious food. For issues this big, there will of course be differences of opinion about how to move forward, what to prioritise, and how to decide. These are important areas for debate. GM, as a technique, is not.”

This PLOS Collection was inspired by the work of the late Simon Chan, a plant biologist at the University of California, Davis, whose work on plant breeding promised to help some of the world’s poorest people. In tribute, the Collection includes a Perspective by his colleague Luca Comai, which discusses how a basic research discovery – a technique called “genome elimination” – is being translated into a potential future tool for plant breeding, and how Simon Chan recognized the potential application of this approach for the improvement of staple food crops in Africa and South America.

Finally, a series of four Essays by Pamela Ronald, Daniel Voytas, Rajeev Varshney and Elizabeth Sattely (and their co-authors) 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. Such advances exemplify how basic research discoveries are being translated into methods to develop and improve important crop traits. These improvements matter because they can increase food production per unit of water and hectare of land, reduce the amount of pesticides used to protect crops from pests and diseases, and enhance the nutritional content of what is grown.

The Collection was produced with the support of The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Collection papers:


The editors of the Collection provide an overview of the aims of The Promise of Plant Translational Research Collection and summarise the articles that appear in this initial publication.


Moving beyond the GM debate

Ottoline Leyser argues that it is necessary to move on from the common logical fallacy that anything natural is good, and anything unnatural is bad, and to correct 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

Luca Comai discusses how a basic research discovery is being translated into a potential future tool for plant breeding and shares the story of the researcher, Simon Chan, who recognized the potential application of this new approach – genome elimination – for the breeding of staple food crops in Africa and South America.


Lab to Farm: Applying Research on Plant Genetics and Genomics to Crop Improvement

Pamela Ronald describes how basic research advances have been translated into crop improvement, explores lessons learned, and discusses the potential for current and future contribution of plant genetic improvement technologies to continue to enhance food security and agricultural sustainability.

Harvesting the promising fruits of genomics: applying genome sequencing technologies to crop breeding

Rajeev Varshney and co-authors discuss how genome sequences of crops can be combined with next-generation sequencing technologies and precise phenotyping methodologies to provide powerful tools for identifying the genetic basis of agronomically important traits for plant breeding.

Key applications of Plant Metabolic Engineering

Elizabeth Sattely and co-authors assess the current progress and future prospects of plant metabolic engineering in addressing four long-standing challenges: creating plants with reduced need for nitrogen fertilizer; enhancing the nutrient content of crop plants; engineering biofuel feed stocks to incorporate self-destructing lignin; and increasing photosynthetic efficiency.

Precision genome engineering and agriculture: opportunities and regulatory challenges

Genome engineering potentially enables the creation of improved crops by altering only a handful of the billions of nucleotides in a typical plant genome. Daniel Voytas and Caixia Gao ask whether, with the appropriate regulatory structures in place, crops created through genome engineering might prove to be more acceptable to the public than plants that carry foreign DNA in their genomes.


PLOS Collection: The Promise of Plant Translational Research (2014) PLOS Biology


PLOS Collections,, +44 (0)1223 442836 (UK)


The collection was supported by The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Competing Interests:

The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

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