In the news...

January 10th, 2019 /

Scientists have found a way to genetically modify plants to fix a flaw in photosynthesis, a breakthrough that may substantially boost the yield of food crops, according to a story in the BBC. The experiments, carried out in the United States on tobacco plants, found a way to bypass a process called photorespiration that costs the plant energy it could otherwise use to grow. “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 per cent. We’ve tried to engineer this shortcut to make them more energy efficient – and in field trials this translated into a 40 per cent increase in plant biomass,” said lead author Dr Paul South with the US Agricultural Research Service.

A New Scientist article about the study – which has been published in the journal Science – explains the glitch as one of “evolution’s greatest mistakes,” one that became a problem because of a mismatch between levels of oxygen in the air when photosynthesis first evolved and now. “[T]he enzyme that grabs hold of CO2 and adds it to a carbon chain often grabs hold of an oxygen molecule by mistake. This generates toxic molecules that plants have to expend energy to mop up,” says the article. “A few plants have evolved a solution: they concentrate CO2 inside them to reduce the odds of oxygen being grabbed by mistake. But most of the plants we eat, including almost all vegetables and fruits, and key crops such as wheat, rice and soybeans, can’t do this. Biologists have been trying to find a fix for decades.”

While the researchers chose to work on tobacco plants because they are quickly modified, they now plan to implement the technology on such food crops as cowpeas, soybeans, rice and potato. “We are are really hoping that this is a technology that provides a tool that further optimises agriculture so that we are not using outside inputs as much and we are growing more food on less land,” said Dr South, adding that at least a decade of research will be required to ensure the technology’s safety. Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research and the UK’s Department for International Development, the technology will be distributed royalty-free to smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia.

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