Skip to main content

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.

Related Videos

“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.

Editors' Recommendations

The next big thing in science is already in your pocket
A researcher looks at a protein diagram on his monitor

Supercomputers are an essential part of modern science. By crunching numbers and performing calculations that would take eons for us humans to complete by ourselves, they help us do things that would otherwise be impossible, like predicting hurricane flight paths, simulating nuclear disasters, or modeling how experimental drugs might effect human cells. But that computing power comes at a price -- literally. Supercomputer-dependent research is notoriously expensive. It's not uncommon for research institutions to pay upward of $1,000 for a single hour of supercomputer use, and sometimes more, depending on the hardware that's required.

But lately, rather than relying on big, expensive supercomputers, more and more scientists are turning to a different method for their number-crunching needs: distributed supercomputing. You've probably heard of this before. Instead of relying on a single, centralized computer to perform a given task, this crowdsourced style of computing draws computational power from a distributed network of volunteers, typically by running special software on home PCs or smartphones. Individually, these volunteer computers aren't particularly powerful, but if you string enough of them together, their collective power can easily eclipse that of any centralized supercomputer -- and often for a fraction of the cost.

Read more
Why AI will never rule the world
image depicting AI, with neurons branching out from humanoid head

Call it the Skynet hypothesis, Artificial General Intelligence, or the advent of the Singularity -- for years, AI experts and non-experts alike have fretted (and, for a small group, celebrated) the idea that artificial intelligence may one day become smarter than humans.

According to the theory, advances in AI -- specifically of the machine learning type that's able to take on new information and rewrite its code accordingly -- will eventually catch up with the wetware of the biological brain. In this interpretation of events, every AI advance from Jeopardy-winning IBM machines to the massive AI language model GPT-3 is taking humanity one step closer to an existential threat. We're literally building our soon-to-be-sentient successors.

Read more
The best hurricane trackers for Android and iOS in 2022
Truck caught in gale force winds.

Hurricane season strikes fear into the hearts of those who live in its direct path, as well as distanced loved ones who worry for their safety. If you've ever sat up all night in a state of panic for a family member caught home alone in the middle of a destructive storm, dependent only on intermittent live TV reports for updates, a hurricane tracker app is a must-have tool. There are plenty of hurricane trackers that can help you prepare for these perilous events, monitor their progress while underway, and assist in recovery. We've gathered the best apps for following storms, predicting storm paths, and delivering on-the-ground advice for shelter and emergency services. Most are free to download and are ad-supported. Premium versions remove ads and add additional features.

You may lose power during a storm, so consider purchasing a portable power source,  just in case. We have a few handy suggestions for some of the best portable generators and power stations available. 

Read more