Seed World

Photosynthesis Breakthrough Needed Now

Using high-performance computing and genetic engineering to boost the photosynthetic efficiency of plants offers the best hope of increasing crop yields enough to feed a planet expected to have a population of 9.5 billion people by 2050, researchers report in the journal Cell.
There has never been a better time to try this, according to University of Illinois plant biology professor Stephen Long, who wrote the report with colleagues from Illinois and the CAS-MPG Partner Institute of Computational Biology in Shanghai.
“We now know every step in the processes that drive photosynthesis in C3 crop plants such as soybeans and C4 plants such as maize,” Long explains. “We have unprecedented computational resources that allow us to model every stage of photosynthesis and determine where the bottlenecks are, and advances in genetic engineering will help us augment or circumvent those steps that impede efficiency.”
Substantial progress has already been made in the lab and in computer models of photosynthesis, Long says.
“Our lab and others have put a gene from cyanobacteria into crop plants and found that it boosts the photosynthetic rate by 30 percent,” he adds.
Photosynthetic microbes offer other clues to improving photosynthesis in plants, the researchers report. For example, some bacteria and algae contain pigments that use more of the solar spectrum than plant pigments do. If added to plants, those pigments could bolster the plants’ access to solar energy.
While many scientific, political and regulatory hurdles remain for plants engineered to do a better job of converting the sun’s energy into biomass, Long says the work should be undertaken now.
“If we have a success today, it won’t appear in farmers’ fields for 15 years at the very earliest,” he says. “We have to be doing today what we may need in 30 years.”
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