Biologists fix ‘glitch’ in photosynthesis, boost crop yield by 40 percent

Most of the time, nature turns out to be a pretty darn great optimizer of solutions, which is why everyone from roboticists to materials scientists are so keen to borrow its techniques. However, when it comes to photosynthesis, it turns out that many crops could do way better — and cutting-edge science could help.

Researchers from the University of Illinois and U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service have used genetic modification to demonstrate that certain crops can be more 40 percent more efficient. This is done by fixing a “photosynthetic glitch,” limiting the yield potential of many crops through an energy-consuming process called photorespiration. Photorespiration is carried out in part because the enzyme rubisco, a crucial component in the photosynthesis process, is unable to properly distinguish between carbon dioxide and oxygen molecules around 20 percent of the time. The result is a plant-toxic compound, which has to be recycled via photorespiration — thereby taking away precious energy which could be used for the photosynthesis process.

“We could feed up to 200 million additional people with the calories lost to photorespiration in the Midwestern U.S. each year,” Donald Ort, the Robert Emerson Professor of Plant Science and Crop Sciences at Illinois’ Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology, said in a statement. “Reclaiming even a portion of these calories across the world would go a long way to meeting the 21st Century’s rapidly expanding food demands — driven by population growth and more affluent high-calorie diets.”

For their clever genetic workaround, the scientists involved in the research found a way to reroute the photorespiration process so that it saves on resources. Excitingly, the 40 percent boost to plant growth isn’t just hypothetical either; it was tested in real-world agronomic conditions. This was achieved in tobacco crops, which proved easier to modify and test than other crops. The crops grew faster, taller, and with 40 percent more biomass, including thicker stems. The team next plans to test its findings on an assortment of other crops, including soybeans, cowpeas, rice, potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplants.

It will most likely take at least one decade before the research passes enough regulatory tests to be rolled out to farmers around the world. However, supposing that those tests don’t reveal anything to worry about, this could turn out to be a major game changer for agriculture — particularly in places like sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia.

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