Super-domestication: making plants work for us

by Leanne Massie

Super-domestication is a relatively new term to describe plants that we have modified to extremes to fit our own needs. For example, crops that have huge yields with minimal negative effects on the environment could be called super-domesticates.

These crops are still works in progress though; the most notable super-domesticate-to-be is “C4 rice”. Rice is naturally a C3 plant, which means it uses a less efficient method to capture carbon from the atmosphere. Some plants that are adapted to hot, dry conditions have evolved a different carbon capture mechanism called C4 photosynthesis, which allows them to take up more carbon dioxide and lose less water in the process, a sort of supercharged version of photosynthesis. If C4 photosynthesis could be introduced into rice the benefits are staggeringly huge. Yields would be increased while at the same time water use would go down. In a world where water shortages are starting to affect everyone and where rice already provides more than one fifth of the total calories consumed worldwide, a C4 variety of rice would go a long way to ending world hunger.

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Credit: Dalgial

This isn’t an easy process though; introducing C4 into a C3 plant is like trying to compare pricing at a supermarket, extremely difficult!. It can be done but takes huge amounts of effort and determination.  But fortunately, C4 photosynthesis has evolved more than 50 times in nature so with the right tools it is very feasible. The C4 Rice Consortium, a foundation that has more than 600 scientists worldwide, has been working on introducing C4 photosynthesis into rice since 2008 and the researchers have collectively published over 400 papers relating to C4 rice since. The scientists are well on their way to making rice into a super-domesticate.

However, this is only rice. Wheat, corn, potatoes, tomatoes, and peas are just some of the other crops that are also being studied to make them work harder for us. Imagine the possibilities that super-domestication could bring if all our crops were supercharged to their full potential.

For more information, see:

C4 Rice Project. http://c4rice.irri.org

D.A. Vaughan, E. Balazs, J. S. Heslop-Harrison (2007) From Crop Domestication to Super-domestication. Annals of Botany 100: 893-901

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