An international team of researchers has, for the first time, demonstrated that by fixing a common glitch in photosynthesis, a crop’s yield could be improved by around 40 percent. The landmark study suggests optimizing a plant’s photosynthetic efficiency could significantly increase worldwide food productivity.
Photosynthesis, the process by which a plant converts light energy into chemical energy, is not a wholly efficient process. A key stage in the photosynthesis process involves an enzyme called RuBisCO grabbing carbon dioxide molecules. However, around 25 percent of the time RuBisCO incorrectly collects oxygen molecules instead, creating a plant-toxic byproduct that disrupts the entire photosynthesis process. Photorespiration is the process plants use to remove these problematic byproducts.
“Photorespiration is anti-photosynthesis,” explains Paul South, lead author on the new research. “It costs the plant precious energy and resources that it could have invested in photosynthesis to produce more growth and yield.”
“Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency” (RIPE) is an international research project founded in 2012 with the primary goal of developing ways to increase food crop yields by engineering more efficient photosynthesis techniques. The project is primarily funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and earlier this year it revealed an exciting simple genetic breakthrough that resulted in crops needing 25 percent less water to produce a regular yield.
To battle the energy cost of photorespiration, a team of scientists worked to engineer more efficient and significantly shorter photorespiratory pathways. The incredible work essentially created alternate routes within a plant cell so the toxic byproducts could be more efficiently removed using less energy.
“We could feed up to 200 million additional people with the calories lost to photorespiration in the Midwestern U.S. each year,” suggests principal investigator Donald Ort, on the benefits the breakthrough could have in the United States.