In 2002, University of Washington researcher Russell Rodriguez was studying a grass that grows in geothermal hotsprings and discovered a fungi, an endophyte in the technical parlance, without which the grass could grow at such high temperatures.
Rodriguez decided to see if this fungi could be used to produce a drought tolerant plants. He isolated the fungal spores and sprayed them onto wheat seeds. The results were impressive. The wheat needed 50 percent less water, and could grow at much higher temperatures.
Since then, Rodriguez has used a similar process with salt-tolerant dunegrass and cold-loving strawberries. When he sprayed those fungi on rice, the results were plants able to withstand salt or cold, (respectively) while simultaneously growing five times the size of normal while requiring half the water. He’s since formed a non-profit to commercialize these developments.
Currently, drought-tolerant GM crops are single-purpose—they tolerate drought. But our weather is nothing if not unpredictable and if drought suddenly turns to flood (as happened this past summer), these GE crops can’t take the moisture. But Rodriquez’s fungi-based drought tolerant crops handle a wet world just fine.
These are the sorts of results that have led a number of researchers to conclude that endophytes have a significant advantage over GE when it comes to fighting global hunger. Biotechs can’t work fast enough to meet the pressures of 7 billion people and climate change. To meet food demands, we need to adapt quickly and microbial communities have always adapted quickly.
Type of Partnership: Win-Neutral for Public and Planet
While crops adapting to climate change can allow the Public to meet food demands, it is not actively enriching the Planet nor does it benefit directly to fungis or other flora and fauna.