June 29, 2016

Making nature more efficient


One of the world’s “most influential scientific minds”, who works to radically improve the productivity of crops, joins Lancaster University as Professor of Crop Sciences.

Professor Steve Long FRS seeks out the most productive plants on the planet, investigates the secrets of their success, and develops ways to transfer that success to the world’s leading food and fuel crop plants.

For 40 years he has been doing ground-breaking work - at molecular, biochemical and physiological level - in the lab and the field, and on the computer.

His achievements include:

  • creating a mathematical model of the more than 100 processes involved in photosynthesis
  • locating the most productive land plant known in the world - in the Amazon basin
  • measuring the impact of ozone and CO2 on crop productivity under open air field conditions and developing herbacous energy plants to mitigate these impacts
  • developing Miscanthus as one of the world’s most efficient “cooler climate” bio-fuels, now being grown at commercial scale.
  • understanding how the most efficient form of photosynthesis, tropical C4, can be adapted to function in cooler climates.

In June Steve became a part-time distinguished Professor of Crop Sciences at Lancaster Environment Centre, where he will create a team bringing together experts in food security, remote sensing and atmospheric sciences. He will spend 20 percent of his time on Lancaster University work, while remaining Gutgsell Endowed Professor at the University of Illinois.

Steve is a Fellow of The Royal Society, the ultimate accolade for a British born scientist.

He is listed by Reuters as one of the “Most Influential Scientific Minds of 2015” and is Founding and Chief Editor of  the journal ‘Global Change Biology’, which was ranked by the Institute for Scientific Information as the most cited journal on global change after only Nature and Science.

He has presented his work on bioenergy, climate change impacts and food security to a U.S. President at the Whitehouse, the Vatican and Bill Gates.

Despite his success, it is his continuing work, and its potential to help some of the world’s most vulnerable people, that really excites him.

Unlocking the secrets of what can make crop photosynthesis more efficient.

When Steve was an agriculture undergraduate, scientists had recently discovered a group of tropical plants - known as C4 plants - which are much more efficient at photosynthesis than other plants. This ability to convert energy into mass - and so create food and fuel for people - became a focus of Steve’s research.

He became fascinated by “how plants that are very productive differ, what in their photosynthesis sets them apart” and “about whether there were C4 plants in temperate climates too and, if so, how they coped with the cold.”  He was also curious about how plants would cope with the rise in carbon dioxide.

Soon Steve was getting answers to his questions, and wanted to use this knowledge to develop crops that could be useful to farmers around the world and adapt better to our rapidly changing environment.

From lab to field to farm

So in 1999 Steve moved to the University of Illiniois in America, attracted by the six square miles of highly instrumented experimental farm right next to the campus, enabling him to pursue his field research on the spot.

Here he established what has become the world’s largest open-air facility for investigating the impacts of rising carbon dioxide, ozone and temperature on major food crops.

In the early days much of his work involved identifying efficient plants, then trying to work out through computer modelling what bit of the photosynthetic process, and which genes, provided the benefit.

He was helped by another Illinois facility, the U.S. National Center for Supercomputer Applications which includes the world’s largest public domain computer – Blue Waters. 

This allowed Steve, with his group, to achieve his dream of simulating the entire photosynthetic process, step-by-step, on the computer. Then, using optimisation, they pinpointed the potential bottleknecks in the process.

“It gave us an idea of the best bet of what to modify in the plant.  Originally this was just computer modelling, then the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation became interested in what we were predicting and challenged us to show that it works  in practice.”

Harnessing the potential of photosynthesis

This led to the creation of the $25-million Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency (RIPE) project, supported by the Gates Foundation, which Steve leads. 

RIPE aims to: ‘facilitate yield increases of staple food crops in developing countries by up to 60 percent, by harnessing major advances in photosynthesis research, crop bioengineering, and computational tools’.

The project includes partner institutions in Australia, Brazil, France, Switzerland, and the UK, including the Photosynthesis Team, led by Professor Martin Parry, at Lancaster Environment Centre.

The models that Steve’s group have produced suggest that photosynthesis has enormous potential to improve crop productivity - in some crops by up to three times, and they are already seeing gains in the field.

Current and future research

One major area of his current research is exploring how to improve the speed with which plant leaves adapt to changes in shade and sunlight.

His modeling suggests that speeding this up, could increase crop productivity by at least 20%.  His group is now engineering plants to do just this, with very promising initial results.

His other current interest is “in how crops can be more efficient under stress conditions, particularly water and ozone stress.”

It’s this interest that has brought him to Lancaster University, where Professor Bill Davies, and others, have done ground-breaking work in this area, coupled with its strong mass isotope facility which is also critical in advancing this work.

“I want to analyse crop varieties for some photosynthetic properties that will make the plant more water use efficient.”

Professor Kevin Jones, Director of Lancaster Environment Centre, said:

“We are thrilled to have such an influential new colleague and are excited at the prospects for linking our strengths in plant sciences, remote sensing, soils and atmospheric sciences to address real-world problems.”

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