Scientists boost plant yield by 40% through ‘genetic hack’

James Marshall
January 6, 2019

The research is part of the efforts of Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency (RIPE), an global research project which influences engineered crops to use photosynthesis more efficiently and in that way increase the productivity of food. They report that these engineered plants developed faster, grew taller, and produced about 40 percent more biomass, most of which was found in 50-percent-larger stems.

Researchers are growing increasingly concerned about the ability of the world to feed a growing population in a time of serious climate change.

It's expected that agricultural demand will increase globally by 60-120% by the middle of this century compared to 2005. However, crop yields are now only increasing by less than 2% per year, suggesting there will be a significant shortfall in meeting this demand. Instead, scientists are increasingly looking to improving the process of photosynthesis as a way of increasing food productivity. They found that these synthetic shortcuts boost productivity by 40 percent, and will now apply this breakthrough to boost the yield of food crops. That process is called photorespiration, and it makes plants produce way less food than they otherwise could.

Green plants containing the protein rubisco use sunlight to convert water and atmospheric carbon dioxide into life-sustaining organic compounds, such as glucose.

Most crops are plagued by a photosynthetic glitch.

It's the first time that an engineered photorespiration fix has been tested in real-world agronomic conditions, having been trialled on a tobacco plant.

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

"It's been estimated that in plants like soybeans, rice and fruit and vegetables, it can be a significant drag on yield by as much as 36%".

Now, researchers from the University of IL and U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service have figured out a way to engineer plants with a built-in photorespiratory shortcut that makes them 40% more productive in real-world conditions.

One important holdback is that the photosynthesis glitch becomes more prevalent under the conditions of higher temperature and drought. This dramatically reduced the resources needed to detoxify the plant. They also form a fully closed canopy in the field similar to many food crops. However, they plan to genetically engineer other plants such as soybeans, cowpeas, rice, potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplants.

However, the authors recognise that using genetic modification is controversial in many parts of the world.

"The research that's necessary to prove that it has low environmental impact and is safe for consumption takes a minimum of ten years and many more dollars in research funds to make sure that this is a good and safe food product", said Dr South.

While it will probably take over 10 years for this innovation to be converted into food crops and accomplish regulatory approval, RIPE and its supporters are focused on guaranteeing that smallholder farmers, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, will have sovereignty free access to the majority of the undertaking's achievements.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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