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Could Nanotechnology End Hunger?

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For what it's worth I like these solutions more than eating bugs. 

Scientists led by Pratim Biswas and Ramesh Raliya at Washington University in St. Louis have harnessed fungi to synthesize nanofertilizer. When sprayed on mung bean leaves, the zinc oxide nanoparticles increase the activity of three enzymes in the plant that convert phosphorus into a more readily absorbable form. Compared to untreated plants, nanofertilized mung beans absorbed nearly 11 percent more phosphorus and showed 27 percent more growth with a 6 percent increase in yield.

Raliya and his colleagues are also developing nanoparticles that enhance plants’ absorption of sunlight and investigating how nanofertilizers fortify crops with nutrients. In a study earlier this year, they found that zinc oxide and titanium dioxide nanoparticles increased levels of the antioxidant lycopene in tomatoes by up to 113 percent. Next, they want to design nanoparticles that enhance the protein content in peanuts. Along with mung beans, peanuts are a major source of protein in many developing countries.

Others are exploring nanoparticles that protect plants against insects, fungi and weeds. The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station and other institutions recently began field trials that use several types of metal oxide nanoparticles on tomato, eggplant, corn, squash and sorghum plants in areas infected with fungi known to threaten crops. Researchers led by Leonardo Fernandes Fraceto, of the Institute of Science and Technology, São Paulo State University, Campus Sorocaba, are designing slow-release nanocapsules that contain two types of fungicides or herbicides to reduce the likelihood of targeted fungi and weeds developing resistance. Scientists at the University of Tehran are conducting similar research. Still others are working on nanocapsules that release plant growth hormones.


If nanotechnology does take hold in agriculture, who will have access to it? Will only affluent countries reap the benefits? “We should be concerned about bridging the gap between the developing and developed world,” says Chike Mba of the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization. In the meantime, farmers in developing countries can tap into effective low-tech options. Existing technology could increase average yields up to threefold in many parts of Africa, according to research by the U.K.’s Foresight Programme.

Genetically modified crops have been met with resistance, but Washington University’s Raliya believes the public will be less wary of nanotechnology since it doesn’t fundamentally alter crops and ultimately reduces chemical use — a bit like organic farming. “We’re currently not able to produce enough food for the people who live on this planet,” says Jason White, vice director of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station and head of its Department of Analytical Chemistry. “The population is increasing, the climate is changing, making agriculture hard to do. The role of nanoparticles is to help us address this major problem. We just can’t produce enough food.”

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