A new gene, discovered with the help of Lincoln University and Plant and Food Research scientists, could be an important step towards feeding a growing global population.

Plant and Food Research scientist Dr Ross Bicknell says the discovery could play a major role in tackling the task of feeding a growing population.

“While the rate of population increase is slowing it’s like you took your foot off the accelerator. We’re still moving forward. The best estimates we have suggest we are going to have to find enough food for 1000 million more people in the next 30 or so years. We need to move quickly.”

The PAR gene controls parthenogenesis, a process whereby plant egg cells spontaneously grow into embryos without fertilisation.

In nature, the PAR gene is triggered by fertilisation, but in plants that reproduce by apomixis – a type of reproduction that does not require fertilisation – the PAR gene switches on spontaneously, so the egg cells are triggered to start dividing into a new embryo.

The gene allows natural reproduction by cloning in plants, allowing highly desirable traits to be carried through to the next generation rather than lost when the plants reproduce through pollination.

The work that led to this discovery was undertaken by scientists in New Zealand, scientists in the Netherlands at research company KeyGene and Wageningen University & Research (WUR), and in Japan at breeding company Takii, to identify ways to produce plant seeds genetically identical to the parent plant.

Bicknell says this discovery could also be a game-changer for farmers globally.

“For subsistence farmers, this would be revolutionary. Instead of always having to buy seed they would now be able to save their own and use it to grow plants with the same elite characteristics year on year without losing quality. That’s why this has the potential to be a truly empowering technology, giving autonomy to people who have the least.

“That’s what’s driven me to do this work for 30 years. If we can break out an opportunity and hand it to people who really need it, then it helps everybody. When the tide comes up, all boats rise.

“If we can improve productivity from seed crops, then anybody who works on seed crops should benefit from it.”

Plants that naturally reproduce by apomixis were found to have a transposon (a small piece of DNA that can jump around the plant DNA) in the promoter of the PAR gene. The promoter is the part of a gene that regulates that gene’s activity.

Researchers at KeyGene are now researching whether the PAR gene can cause parthenogenesis in plants that do not normally reproduce by apomixis, such as lettuce and sunflower, to further understand how this gene could be used in crop plant breeding.