So are soybeans sorted or not?

Readers may have seen press coverage of a paper in Science suggesting that a biotech tweak to photosynthesis has led to significant yield boosts in soybeans. The tweak involves getting leaves to respond more nimbly to changes in light intensity, including due to shading by other leaves. It has successfully increased biomass production in tobacco in the past: would it also increase seed yield in a food crop under field conditions?

Yes, by up to a third, said the headlines. Not so fast, said Merritt Khaipho-Burch on Twitter: we’re going to need many more and much better field trials before we’re convinced.

That got some push-back, basically saying those kinds of trials are too expensive to be a precondition of publication. But now one of the authors of the original study, Steven Burgess, has weighed in, also on Twitter, saying the criticism is valid, it’s all very complicated, and the paper is just a proof of principle at this stage.

Now to get the press to explain all that.

2 Replies to “So are soybeans sorted or not?”

  1. Hmm. Embarrassing damage control. How was this leaked to press to become sensationalised? So, the world food crisis is not about to be solved! This lends more ammunition to the anti-science whackos.

    1. No evidence at all that it was leaked. It was, however, the cover article, which would draw reporters’ attention. The abstract states:

      In replicated field trials, photosynthetic efficiency in fluctuating light was higher and seed yield in five independent transformation events increased by up to 33%. Despite increased seed quantity, seed protein and oil content were unaltered. This validates increasing photosynthetic efficiency as a much needed strategy toward sustainably increasing crop yield in support of future global food security.

      I’d say that journalists took that at face value, and most of them would not have had the knowledge or experience to begin to question it. In view of the later comment that the paper “should be taken as a starting point” I’d say that in this case, the authors oversold their results, and know it.

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