Plants Can Do Maths: Can We Calculate An Improvement In Food Security?


Home / Plants Can Do Maths: Can We Calculate An Improvement In Food Security?

Improving Global Wheat Yields with 20:20 Wheat. Is it possible to increase
UK wheat yields to 20 tonnes/hectare in 20 years? Image provided courtesy of Rothamsted Research

Decoded Science asked Professor Alison Smith and Professor Martin Howard (co-authors on the paper) if they had expected the models to fit so well. They explained that once they made the “conceptual breakthrough” that the process was arithmetic division, “the ease of fitting was perhaps not so surprising. However, we then used the models to predict the night-time starch dynamics in previously unstudied situations (e.g. with a night-time light period). The ability of the models to fit the data in these situations was not guaranteed and was therefore pleasing to see.

How Could ‘Plant Maths’ Improve Food Security?

Plant growth is limited by the lack of light at night. That’s an obvious statement. However, if we can learn how a plant grows in the dark without exhausting its starch reserves, this could help us further improve plant yields. This is exactly what we need to improve food security in the light of increasing population.

There are many research programmes aimed at increasing yield; one is the 20:20 Wheat® Project based at Rothamsted Research in the UK. This ambitious project aims to increase wheat yield to 20t/ha (tonnes per hectare) in 20 years. It is ambitious because the average farm yield of wheat in the UK is currently 8.4t/ha and globally just 3t/ha.

Decoded Science asked Professor Martin Parry, the Principal Investigator on 20:20 Wheat®, if the new JIC research might contribute to sustainable increases in yield. He commented that “the ability to understand complex metabolic traits in this way will enable us to identify and test new targets for crop improvement.”

Professors Smith and Howard made the additional point that this study applies to Arabidopsis

our work on Arabidopsis gives us a baseline from which to explore what happens in crop plants. It’s entirely possible that crop species solve the challenge of timing the use of food reserves at night in a different way from Arabidopsis, but the insights we’ve gained will help us to tackle this question in a more systematic and logical way than would previously have been possible.”

Better food security? The future is bright.


Swarbreck, D. et al. The Arabidopsis Information Resource (TAIR): gene structure and function annotation. (2007). Nucleic Acids Research 36: D1009-D1014 Accessed 4 July 2013

Scialdone, A. et al. Arabidopsis plants perform arithmetic division to prevent starvation at night. (2013). Elife. Accessed July 17, 2013.

Leave a Comment