Frequently Asked Questions

 

Can I be a part of this project?

Maybe! Check out our Join our team webpage to see if our current openings are a good match for you.


How can I contribute to RIPE?

Our project is fully sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the U.S. Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR), and the U.K. Government's Department for International Development (DFID). However, we would be happy to connect you with a gift officer at one of our partner institutions to support strategic initiatives related to RIPE. Contact us at ripe@igb.illinois.edu for more information.


What is the science behind RIPE?

Photosynthesis is the natural process all plants use to harness energy from the sun to convert carbon dioxide into sugars that are the building blocks for growth, productivity, and directly or indirectly all of our food. Improving this essential plant function offers a solar-powered approach to significantly increase crop productivity, allowing farmers to produce more food sustainably.

Photosynthesis is a complex process with about 170 steps, but it is also one that science has recognized as less efficient than it could be. Scientists speculated that if photosynthesis could be improved, yields would increase as a result. Sophisticated computer models supported this view and have identified bottlenecks and how they could be overcome. RIPE’s laboratory and field tests have provided powerful evidence to support these findings: see our 2016 and 2019 Science papers.


Why has nature not perfected photosynthesis through natural selection?

Photosynthesis originated billions of years ago. Since then, this process has been shaped by natural selection. But agriculture originated only 10,000 years ago, and some aspects of photosynthesis that are well adapted for natural environments are not well suited for a managed agricultural environment. Currently, carbon dioxide is a limiting substrate for photosynthesis. Yet today’s atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are double the concentration in which our crop ancestors evolved, with half of that change occurring in just the last 50 years. Plants have not had enough time to adapt to this rapid rate of change to maximize photosynthesis.


How soon will RIPE have an impact on farmers’ fields?

After being successfully transferred to food crops, our traits will be studied extensively to ensure they are safe for people, animals, and the environment before they are distributed to farmers. Ultimately, countries and farmers need to decide what’s right for them. The RIPE project and our sponsors support countries to develop robust regulatory systems so that they can review and approve new products. We predict that it will take 15 to 20 years for our technologies to receive regulatory approval in the U.S. and countries with similar regulatory and testing frameworks. The RIPE project and its sponsors are committed to ensuring Global Access and making the project’s technologies available to the farmers who need them the most.


How will you ensure that your technologies reach farmers who need it most?

The RIPE project and our sponsors are committed to Global Access and ensuring that smallholder farmers, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, will have royalty-free access to all of the technologies that RIPE invents.


Why does RIPE utilize genetic engineering?

If food production is to be increased by 50 percent in as little as three decades, we must discover new and sustainable ways of improving harvests and yields, and make these tools as widely available as possible.

Genetic engineering is usually the fastest way to test ideas and show proof-of-concept. In some cases, we can quickly validate if a trait works using genetic engineering, and then go back to seek out the same solution using a crop’s natural genetic variability. If genetic variability for the trait doesn’t exist, genetic engineering is used to introduce the trait.

RIPE’s goal is to enhance what is already in the genetic makeup of the crop. We are using, for example, genes from a standard laboratory plant—Arabidopsis—to increase the levels of proteins already present in the plant to improve its photosynthetic efficiency. Other parts of the project explore natural variation to identify plants or algae with superior enzymes that could be used to improve the yield of RIPE’s target crops.

There is no single solution to meeting the food needs of the global population. But when faced with so many hungry people today, and the prospect of many more in the decades to come, we have to look at all safe innovations which can boost global food security and build resilience to our changing climate. We want to provide society with more choices to ensure our food-secure future.


Why does the RIPE project want to increase tobacco yields?

We don’t. The project aims to see the same improvements in yields in cassava, cowpea, maize, soybean, and rice—the five staple food crops that supply calories and protein to hundreds of millions of people in Africa and Asia where most of the hungry live.

Tobacco was chosen as the initial test crop solely because it is relatively easy to work with experimentally, and results can be seen far more quickly. With tobacco, we can go from genetic transformation (i.e., genetic modification) to completion of field testing within 12 months, compared to 3-5 years required for many food crops. Tobacco shares common traits with many essential food crops so the lessons learned should be transferable. Hence, tobacco helps us more quickly determine which traits should move forward into food crops that require more time, energy, and resources. Work has already begun to replicate several improvements seen in tobacco in these staple food crops.


Do you need more information, or is your question missing from this page?

Contact us at ripe@igb.illinois.edu