Defend and grow: The trick to growing more food

Our growing population is no joke. According to Bill Gates, global populations are projected to reach 9 billion by the year 2050. In order to continue feeding 9 billion people, food production will need to increase by 70-100%. Farmers are already densely planting their crops to produce more food, but densely planted crops still attract problems. 

When to Grow, When to Defend 

Plants have a limited amount of energy to expend at one time; they can grow or defend themselves, but they’re not able to do both simultaneously. In ideal conditions, a plant will grow at an optimal rate; but, when stressed by drought, disease or insects, plants respond defensively, either slowing or stopping growth altogether. When they need to grow fast such as when they compete with neighbouring plants for light (a shade avoidance response), they drop their defences to exert all their energy to growth production. However, even if they grow quickly, densely planted crops become more vulnerable to pests. 

A team of researchers at Michigan State University has recently found a way around the growth-defence trade-off. Recently published in Nature Communications, the team explains how to genetically modify a plant so that it continues growing while defending itself against external forces. The team of scientists learned that the plant's defence hormone repressor and light receptor could be stunted in the plant’s response pathways. 

The research team worked with the Arabidopsis plant (akin to mustard), but their method can be applied to all plants. Professor Gregg Howe, a biochemist and molecular biologist with the MSU Foundation, led the study and explained that “the hormone and light response pathways [that were] modified are in all the major crops.”


Professor Howe’s discovery will help us grow stronger, safer food at a faster rate. Farmers who densely plant their crops won’t have to rely on potentially harmful pesticides to protect their plants anymore. Their crops’ natural defences will be active even as they continue growing. It’s more imperative than ever for studies in molecular biology to continue progressing if we want to keep up with our exponentially growing population. We don’t want to consider the alternative.

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