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This Major Breakthrough Could Help Improve Global Food Supply

Josh Falzone
January 8, 2019

Researchers and scientists around the world have been working for years to engineer photosynthesis as a means to safely enhance crop productivity and improve the global food supply, and just this week, significant progress towards that objective occurred.

On Thursday, researchers at the University of Illinois announced they were successful in producing tobacco plants that were 40 percent larger.

Now, the goal of this endeavor is not to produce more tobacco. Instead, they are aiming to apply the technique to staple crops – such as tomatoes, soybeans and black-eyed peas – in an effort to meet the growing demand for food.

According to AFP News:

The scientists at the university's Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology say they have found a way to make the process of photosynthesis, the process by which plants use sunlight to convert carbon dioxide and water into energy, inherently more efficient.

An enzyme called Rubisco is key to the process of converting atmospheric carbon into an organic compound the plant consumes, a process known as "carbon fixation."

But the enzyme also acts to "fix" atmospheric oxygen, converting it into toxic compounds that the plant expends considerable energy eliminating -- energy that could otherwise be spent in growing. This competing process is known as photorespiration.

The Illinois team came up with the idea of implanting bits of algae DNA into the tobacco plant's cells to create a type of biological shortcut that would speed up photorespiration.

Lead author Donald Ort told AFP: "If you take a shortcut, when you're driving your car, you travel less distance, and you use less fuel."

When a plant uses less energy on photorespiration, it "is able to take that energy and put it into plant growth and plant productivity, rather than using it to metabolize this toxic compound."

Other techniques had tried to limit photorespiration, but have often led to negative impacts on the plant's other functions.

"What's cool about this is that they've been very clever in targeting the pathway in a way that doesn't cause side effects," David Stern, president of the Boyce Thompson Institute, which was not a part of the study, told AFP.

Maureen Hanson, a professor of molecular biology and genetics at Cornell University, said this is “really the first major breakthrough showing that one can indeed engineer photosynthesis and achieve a major increase in crop productivity.”

The University of Illinois project is being funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as well as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has been very active  in developing ways to utilize genetics as a means to transform global development, combat the looming food crisis, and fight deadly diseases.