November 17, 2016
Scientists tweak photosynthesis and boost crop yield, proving it can be done
Named one of the 12 key science moments of 2016 by the Guardian. More external news related to this work:
- Science | Engineered crops could have it made in the shade
- Science Magazine | How turning off a plant's sunshield can grow bigger crops
- Nature | Plant science: Crops on the fast track for light
- Nature Biotechnology | Photosynthesis gets a boost
- New York Times | With an Eye on Hunger, Scientists See Promise in Genetic Tinkering of Plants
- Seattle Times | Gates-funded research could help combat hunger with dramatic increases in crop yields
- BBC | Genetic breakthrough: Crops use more sunlight to grow
- Popular Science | Scientists tweak plant genes to enhance photosynthesis and increase crop yields
- The Guardian | Plants modified to boost photosynthesis produce greater yields, study shows
- Smithsonian Magazine | New Technique Could Supercharge Crop Production
- Inform Magazine | Two new strategies to boost crop yields
- TheScientist | Genetic Modification Improves Photosynthetic Efficiency
- SciTechNow | Altering the process of photosynthesis
- Los Angeles Times | Scientists aim to feed the world by boosting photosynthesis
- San Francisco Chronicle | Scientists modify plants, making them use sunlight better
- International Business Times | Genetically Modified Crops: Gene Tweaking Boosts Photosynthesis Efficiency To Increase Crop Yield
- Science & Scholarship in Poland | 15 percent higher yields through improved photosynthesis in the shade
- Tech Times | Scientists Modify Photosynthesis To Produce More Crops
- MIT Technology Review | Super-Fast-Growing GM Plants Could Yield the Next Green Revolution
- The Hindu | Tweaking photosynthesis for a better crop yield
- Voice of America Learning English | Supercharged Plants May Mean More Crop Production
- Talking Biotech Podcast | 059 Engineering Efficiency in Photosynthesis
- Futurism | Engineering Nature: How Improved Photosynthesis Could Feed the World
- F1000Prime | Improving photosynthesis and crop productivity by accelerating recovery from photoprotection
- BIG 10 Network | Illinois research promotes more productive plants
- Daily Illini | University scientists become the first to genetically modify photosynthesis
- Daily Illini | Top 10 moments of the semester
- WILL | Study: Enhanced Photosynthesis Increases Yield Up To 20 Percent
- WCIA | UI reseachers make crop yield breakthrough
- KPCC | How to increase food production? Improve Photosynthesis
Researchers report in the journal Science that they can increase plant productivity by boosting levels of three proteins involved in photosynthesis. In field trials, the scientists saw 14- to 20-percent increases in the productivity of their modified tobacco plants.
Many years of computational analysis and laboratory and field experiments led to the selection of the proteins targeted in the study. The researchers used tobacco because it is easily modified. Now they are focusing on food crops.
“We don’t know for certain this approach will work in other crops, but because we’re targeting a universal process that is the same in all crops, we’re pretty sure it will,” said University of Illinois plant biology and crop sciences professor Stephen Long, who led the study with postdoctoral researchers Katarzyna Glowacka and Johannes Kromdijk. (Watch this video or this video to learn more about the research.)
“Crop leaves exposed to full sunlight absorb more light than they can use,” Long said. “If they can’t get rid of this excess energy, it will actually bleach the leaf.”
Plants protect themselves by making changes within the leaf that dissipate the excess energy as heat, he said. This process is called nonphotochemical quenching.
“But when a cloud crosses the sun, or a leaf goes into the shade of another, it can take up to half an hour for that NPQ process to relax,” Long said. “In the shade, the lack of light limits photosynthesis, and NPQ is also wasting light as heat.”
Long and former graduate student Xinguang Zhu used a supercomputer at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the U. of I. to predict how much the slow recovery from NPQ reduces crop productivity over the course of a day. These calculations revealed “surprisingly high losses” of 7.5 percent to 30 percent, depending on the plant type and prevailing temperature, Long said.
Long’s discussions with University of California, Berkeley researcher and study co-author Krishna Niyogi—an expert on the molecular processes underlying NPQ—suggested that boosting levels of three proteins might speed up the recovery process.
To test this concept, the team inserted a “cassette” of the three genes (taken from the model plant Arabidopsis) into tobacco.
“The objective was simply to boost the level of three proteins already present in tobacco,” Long said.
The researchers grew seedlings from multiple experiments, then tested how quickly the engineered plants responded to changes in available light.
A fluorescence imaging technique allowed the team to determine which of the transformed plants recovered more quickly upon transfer to shade. The researchers selected the three best performers and tested them in several field plots alongside plots of the unchanged tobacco.
Caption: Taken with using a fluorescence imaging technique, false color images of photoprotection in tobacco seedlings after a change from high to low light. The panel in top-left is the wild-type control (blue seedlings), the other three panels are showing transgenic seedlings with faster recovery from photoprotection, hence the lower photoprotection levels indicated by the green color.
Two of the modified plant lines consistently showed 20 percent higher productivity, and the third was 14 percent higher than the unaltered tobacco plants.
“Tobacco is grown for its leaves, which were substantially increased,” Kromdijk said. “But in food crops, it will be whatever we eat from the plant – the fruit, the seeds or the roots – that we will need to increase.”
Caption: Three plants transformed to improve photoprotection recovery are visibily larger than thenormal (wildtype) tobacco plant.
Other experiments have demonstrated that increasing photosynthesis by exposing plants to high carbon dioxide results in more seed in wheat, soy and rice, he said.
“Now we can do this genetically, and we are actively working on repeating our work in various food crops,” he said.
The new results are a proof-of-concept that photosynthesis can be made more efficient, and that this does result in more crop productivity – something the scientific community once doubted, Glowacka said.
“This finding offers some rare good news at a time of dire forecasts of future food shortages,” she said.
“The United Nations predicts that by 2050, we’re going to need to produce about 70 percent more food on the land we’re currently using,” Long said. “My attitude is that it is very important to have these new technologies on the shelf now because it can take 20 years before such inventions can reach farmer’s fields. If we don’t do it now, we won’t have this solution when we need it.”
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funded this research, with the stipulation that any new agricultural products that result from the work be licensed in such a way that the technology is freely available to farmers in poor countries of Africa and South Asia.
This work was conducted as part of the Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency project at the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology at Illinois.
The paper "Improving photosynthesis and crop productivity by accelerating recovery from photoprotection" was published in Science, Vol. 354, Issue 6314, pp. 857-861; access the abstract, reprint, and full text.view full article