Agronomic engineers have managed to improve upon one the most important biological process on the planet – photosynthesis. The increased yield in crop could be as much as 15%.
Analysts say this is a crucial step towards increasing sustainable food production to supply our ever-growing global population.
The breakthrough, published in the journal Science, used genetic modification to boost the amount of sunlight energy that plants can channel into food production.
140-Steps to Photosynthesis
After decades of research into the 140-step process by which plants convert sunlight into energy, scientists have revealed specific “inefficiencies in crops” – bottlenecks holding up the conversion of sunlight energy into food. The new research was aimed at tackling one of those bottlenecks.
Photo-inhibition: A Plant’s Natural Sun Protection
The scientists targeted plant life’s natural Sun-protection mechanism, using tobacco (Nicotinia) plants.
While plants have advanced throughout their evolution to sustain themselves and grow using Sun light energy, they have also evolved a safeguard mechanism to shield themselves from Sun damage, which in turn slows the growth process down.
The leaf induces a process that dissipates excess energy as heat. The extent of this photo-inhibition mechanism – a light-induced reduction in the photosynthetic capacity of a plant – is associated with a balance between the rate of photo-damage and its repair.
When a cloud passes in front of the Sun, however, the plant receives less sunlight.
Theoretically, the plant could use up all of the energy it receives when the amount of sunshine decreases, but it keeps on releasing that energy as heat.
The photosynthetic systems simply do not adapt to fluctuating light conditions rapidly enough, thus reducing photosynthesis efficiency.
Herein lies the challenge.
What lead researcher Professor Sophie Long and her team from the University of Illinois and University of Lancaster have done is to accelerate the process through which heat loss switches on-and-off.
They sought to bio-engineer an accelerated response of the plant to naturally-occurring shading events.
For this, the scientists inserted extra copies of the genes that mediate this heat-loss switch. The results showed an increased leaf carbon dioxide uptake and plant dry matter productivity.
And when they grew their genetically modified tobacco crop, they found it grew 15% larger than normal. A major improvement.
Globally, rice, wheat, maize and soybean are the biggest crops. The researchers are now aiming to make this change in rice, soy and wheat.
A 15% yield increase in those crops would be a huge improvement. It would greatly alleviate the future pressure on the overall food supply.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (UNFAO), that pressure will likely intensify in the coming years. By 2050, it is projected that the World’s nations will need to increase food production by 70%, as the global population soars to over 9 billion people.
Because the photo-protective mechanism that has been altered is common to all flowering plants and crops, the findings provide proof of concept for a route to obtaining a sustainable increase in productivity for food crops and a much-needed yield increase.
Ensuring the World’s Food Security
Considering the current rate of population growth on Earth, we are quickly going to reach a threshold to our ability to feed the World’s populations. Today, many households are already spending almost 100% of their household income on food.
As things stand, many people do not get enough to eat.
But in the future?
Food production will need to increase by 70%.
In the Western world, food prices will continue to rise. And for a few of the poorest nations, the impact of population growth will be catastrophic.
The World needs urgent sustainable innovations to secure the global food supply.
Of course, this is merely one change, and we do not yet know if these plants will require more of other resources, like water. But it is critically important to increase harvest yields significantly, and in a sustainable way.
In terms of making Africa green and resolving the difficulties associated with farming in those parts of the World, improving those processes involved in photosynthesis is an important step in maintaining food security. Poor farmers would be able to cultivate staple crops that could grow well across a range of different environments. Whether during a drought or a flood, you could still have crops that remain viable even in the harshest of climatic conditions.
The breakthrough is vital.
With these new research developments, we could potentially achieve a World with zero hunger over the next 20 years.