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A Natural Gene Regulation System May Change the Future of Farming

Field of corn plants growing.
Credit: Rudy and Peter Skitterians / Pixabay
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Read time: 4 minutes

Consider how modern-day agriculture compares to the kind practiced 100, 500 or 10,000 years ago. Farmers produce food on a larger scale than ever before, and standard practices use a heavy hand by relying on chemicals, such as fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), to ensure maximum productivity. However, these practices work against nature rather than with it, and as such, they are an unsustainable way to improve crop yields. 


Climate change introduces further challenges to maintaining our food system—new and mounting stressors such as heat, drought, weeds and pests all stunt crop growth. Chemical solutions have a limited ability to address these challenges and are even less effective as resistance builds up. To prepare to feed a growing global population in the face of climate change, farmers must tap into plant biology to fine-tune how crops respond to each unique situation as it arises. A biological phenomenon using micropeptides for crop protection could be leveraged to do just that. 


Adaptable and dynamic, micropeptides are short, natural protein chains encoded in plant and animal genomes. Remarkably, they can turn specific genes on or off, influencing plant phenotypes like germination, early growth, heat tolerance, flowering and disease prevention. Now, researchers can engineer micropeptides to produce these desirable phenotypes through analytical and formulation technologies. Micropeptide candidates with the best stability, penetrability and manufacturing properties can be turned into easy-to-use, reliable substances that farmers can spray on their crops. In contrast to standard chemical treatments, micropeptides are safer, environmentally friendly and more compatible with regenerative farming practices that restore the health of farmland. As such, they could represent a breakthrough in the world of agriculture, bringing new hope to the future of farming.


The state of the field


There are several fundamental issues with agrochemical and GMO use in farming. Pesticides eliminate weeds, insects, bacteria and fungi; however, their off-target effects on plants, animals and microbes can upset the balance of the ecosystem. In particular, beneficial microbes in the soil promote crop growth, nutrient availability and healthy soil structure. When chemicals and tilling practices disturb these microbes, crops lose their microscopic partners, the soil becomes increasingly depleted and future crops will grow in deteriorating conditions. Furthermore, some chemical fertilizers run off into our watersheds and cause algal blooms that disrupt ocean and lake ecosystems.


GMOs are designed to have higher yields or greater resistance to stressors like pests and weeds. They represent one significant way in which the agricultural industry has shifted to meet higher demands and fortify crops to withstand environmental changes. Although this approach can be effective in specific settings and crops, genetic modification of an organism causes a permanent change. Even if this change may be beneficial today, there's no telling how a specific genetic modification may perform in tomorrow's environment. Climate change will likely demand ongoing "upgrades" to our existing GMOs, which will take significant time and money to create.


Besides the fundamental limitations of current agriculture practices, additional challenges associated with agricultural chemicals and GMOs continue to arise. For example, farmers are seeing a rise in herbicide resistance, so their options to combat weeds are dwindling. Since the 1980s, only one new herbicide with a new mode of action has become available. Farmers sometimes use higher quantities of existing chemicals to achieve the same effect, but this approach is costly and introduces elevated levels of chemicals into the environment. It also conflicts with government regulations and the public pressure on farmers to reduce the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to reduce environmental impact and health risks. Although the use of GMO crops may negate some of these issues, seeds can be extremely expensive. Additionally, the use of GMOs is subject to varied and constantly evolving legislative restrictions across the globe.


Overall, current agricultural practices overwhelm the environment, depreciate maximum yields and contribute to climate change. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions were caused by agriculture in 2021. Farmers need crop protection solutions to integrate into sustainable agricultural practices that protect the future of global food production. 


Achieving crop protection through micropeptides


Protein-coding gene products like micropeptides can change the future of farming by reducing dependence on chemical crop control products and GMOs. They represent a more sustainable, environmentally friendly tactic to navigate the uncertainty of climate change and provide food security for the global population for years to come.


Micropeptides are a step in a natural process that amplifies the production of the micropeptide's counterpart, microRNA. The microRNA regulates the expression of specific genes, resulting in a targeted effect that can encourage crop growth, improve resilience against stressors or inhibit the growth of weeds and pests. Because micropeptides are integrated into a plant's innate biology, they exhibit highly targeted activity and affect only one or a few species, avoiding off-target effects, unlike current pesticides. Once applied, micropeptides degrade rapidly in soil, so they are cleared from the environment without causing widespread effects on our land and waterways. 


In the future, micropeptide products could represent an affordable option for farmers, given their potency and efficacy at 1/10th to 1/100th the dose of traditional agrochemicals. Importantly, micropeptides may be combined with other products and integrated into existing practices to maximize yield without disrupting operation on the farm.


The future of farming with biological crop protection


Micropeptides represent a groundbreaking technology with the potential to address many of the challenges associated with modern agriculture. Targeted, nonpermanent and tailor-made, they can optimize the growth of virtually any crop in various environments.


In the future, using micropeptides instead of fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and GMOs could result in sustainable farms that produce less chemical runoff that seeps into the environment and causes algal blooms. By preserving soil health, long-term improvements could be made in the health of the world’s farmland. Farmers may see reduced costs associated with crop protection, as the micropeptide products may be more effective at lower volumes. Finally, farmers would be able to help crops respond dynamically to the changing environment and the new stressors introduced by climate change.


The world population is predicted to reach almost 10 billion by 2050, creating an unprecedented demand for agricultural productivity. Micropeptides may play a major role to help us meet the growing need to produce safe, affordable and nutritious food. By leveraging tools like micropeptides that work with the environment rather than against it, farmers can increase yields sustainably, restore habitats, reduce our environmental footprint and improve soil health — all to secure our food system for years to come.