Scientists hack plant photosynthesis to boost crop yields by 40%

41330  Pixabay

41330 Pixabay

Mankind is set to face a major threat in the coming decades: food security. "It's really the first major breakthrough showing that one can indeed engineer photosynthesis and achieve a major increase in crop productivity". At the moment, we are not growing enough to keep up with demand. He and a team of scientists haves found a way to fix a "glitch" in plant growth-photorespiration.

"Rubisco has even more trouble picking out carbon dioxide from oxygen as it gets hotter, causing more photorespiration", said co-author Amanda Cavanagh, an IL postdoctoral researcher working on the RIPE project.

Photosynthesis uses the enzyme Rubisco-the planet's most abundant protein-and sunlight energy to turn carbon dioxide and water into sugars that fuel plant growth and yield. Crops that use a different form of photosynthesis are maize, sugarcane and sorghum. However, around 25 percent of the time RuBisCO incorrectly collects oxygen molecules instead, creating a plant-toxic byproduct that disrupts the entire photosynthesis process. "We've tried to engineer this shortcut to make them more energy efficient - and in field trials this translated into a 40% increase in plant biomass".

South, along with colleagues from the University of IL, have now found a way to reduce this "glitch" by creating a new pathway through which photorespiration can happen.

Scientists in the United States have engineered tobacco plants that can grow up to 40% larger than normal in field trials.

Cavanagh and her colleagues published their work this week in the journal Science.

An unmodified plant (far left) grows beside a group of engineered plants.

Scientists from the University of IL and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agriculture Research Service changed how tobacco plants with the same glitch process sunlight, inserting genes from bacteria, green algae and other plants, they wrote in the journal Science.

The photosynthesis process is 'nearly identical in plants so we expect that benefits observed in tobacco will result in changes to food crops, ' said South. And they created super tobacco plants.

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"This process is very similar among all the crops that we are looking to grow", said Dr South. However, if trials are successful, these engineered plants could help curb the problem of food security.

Scientists planted tobacco seedlings by hand to test their photorespiratory pathways in real-world field conditions.

Professor Roger Beachy, a biologist at the Washington University in St. Louis, was part of the program-review of the project. "By doing so, it will be possible to produce sufficient nutrition for the population without using additional crop lands, or converting forests and marginal lands to agriculture fields", said Beachy. Researchers from the University of IL and U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service report in the journal Science that crops engineered with a photorespiratory shortcut are 40 percent more productive in real-world agronomic conditions.

Beachy said that the work raises as many questions as it answers, and "will keep scientists busy for a number of years".

Cavanagh and her colleagues in a research program called Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency (RIPE), which is based at the University of IL, have spent the last five years trying to fix Rubisco's problem.

They believe the method could be used to significantly boost yields from important crops including rice and wheat.

"The finding has profound importance to potential crop production globally", he told Newsweek.

Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency (RIPE) is engineering staple food crops to more efficiently turn the sun's energy into yield to sustainably increase worldwide food productivity, with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR), and the U.K. Government's Department for International Development (DFID).

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