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10 Years of RIPE

10 Years of RIPE banner

In honor of RIPE’s anniversary, we’re looking back at some of the accomplishments over the past 10 years that our researchers have contributed to our mission to equip farmers with higher-yielding crops and ensuring that everyone has enough food to lead a healthy, productive life.

In the last half of the 20th century, plant scientists bred a new generation of plants to feed millions of hungry people all over the globe. For decades, this Green Revolution enabled global food production to rise more rapidly than the global population. Today, we can no longer rely on further improving the traits that drove the Green Revolution, yet the population is expected to rise to 9.7 billion people by 2050 and 11.2 billion by 2100, portending a food security crisis. 

Formed in 2012, the Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency (RIPE) project is an international research project that aims to engineer crops to be more productive by improving photosynthesis, the natural process that all plants use to convert sunlight into energy and ultimately, yield. 

With the continued support of our sponsors, team members, and colleagues, the future of agriculture is bright as we focus on making our technologies available to the farmers who need them the most, particularly those in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. 

For February’s celebration of #10YearsofRIPE, RIPE Director Stephen Long recognized building the RIPE team as one of our greatest achievements. “The most important accomplishment in RIPE’s first decade is our team. The dedication that our team members have shown has allowed us to make incredible progress toward feeding the world.” 

March’s feature focus is on RIPE field trials that have shown that reducing the yield loss due to photorespiration with AP3 constructs can improve potato yield. In 2020, AP3 potato yielded a 9.5% increase in tuber mass per plant and a highly significant increase in iron content compared to control groups. A 2021 field trial that tried to replicate these findings was irreparably damaged by flooding, but another trial is planned for 2022. 

For the month of April, we wanted to express how proud we are to be growing plants all over the world. The RIPE project has field trial locations in Illinois and Puerto Rico, with greenhouses at our partner institutions in other states in the US, Australia, the UK, and more! 

May’s feature focuses on the breakthrough made by ANU scientists in 2018. A team of researchers, led by Dr. Ben Long, from the Australian National University, engineered tiny carbon-capturing engines from blue-green algae into plants. This discovery was a major step forward in helping to boost the yields of important food crops such as wheat, cowpea, and cassava. The team inserted tiny compartments from cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, into crop plants that could form part of a system that could lead to a 60% increase in plant growth and yield. These compartments, called carboxysomes, along with transport systems for CO2 and bicarbonate, make cyanobacteria more efficient at converting carbon dioxide into sugars. Researchers found that being able to build carboxysomes in chloroplasts reaches a key step in being able to insert cyanobacterial CO2 capture systems in food crops, ultimately allowing them to potentially produce higher yield. 

June’s feature highlights RIPE’s development and use of more effective modeling systems–in silico and in vivo–to aid us in our mission to increase yields of crops. Our project engineers plants to photosynthesize more efficiently, and in order to do that, plants need to overcome many challenges before getting to the point of field trials. The first step is determining which genes should be modified, which can be found by using simulations, where researchers plug in genetic changes to a plant and a computer model then shows how those changes would affect the plant (“in silico”). After detecting those successful changes, there comes the next challenge of actually transferring those changes seen in the computer model into the genome of actual plants (“in vivo”). These model systems have transformed the ways in which our research is done, saving countless time by finding better gene modifications faster and helping us come closer to increasing global food security.

For July’s celebration, we are sharing RIPE’s “New Generation of Leaders,” with a record number of former RIPE postdoctoral researchers getting appointed as tenure-track lecturers and full professors at universities, and joining industry or research institutes to continue their careers in photosynthesis. 

University of Cambridge

University of Essex

  • Patricia Lopez-Calcagno was a senior research officer at the University of Essex for the RIPE project, who has gone on to accept a lecturer position in Natural and Environmental Sciences at Newcastle University

University of Illinois

  • Steven Burgess is an assistant professor of Plant Biology in the School of Integrative Biology at the University of Illinois, where his lab’s research aims are to provide a sustainable ecosystem for future generations by working openly and collaboratively with synthetic biology tools to simplify, miniaturize and automate engineering of photosynthetic organisms. 
  • Amanda Cavanagh was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Illinois, who had since gone on to become a lecturer in Biological Sciences at the University of Essex. In 2021, Amanda received the 2021 Rank Prize New Lecturer grant in nutrition, having been one of three scholars to receive the award. 
  • Kasia Glowacka was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Illinois. She went on to become an assistant professor of Biochemistry at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where her lab’s long-term research goal is to improve the resistance of crops to abiotic stresses, in particular to low water availability and chilling temperatures. To reach this aim, her lab combines genomics, synthetic biology, and plant physiology with a particular emphasis on photosynthesis research. 
  • Laurie Leonelli is an assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering at the University of Illinois. Her research explores the natural diversity found in photosynthetic organisms and engineers mechanisms that enhance photosynthesis in crops. 
  • Megan Matthews is an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Illinois. Her work involves developing multiscale computational models to explore the impacts of a changing environment on plants and to identify engineering strategies for improving plant development and growth. 
  • Ursula Ruiz-Vera was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Illinois, where her research focused on the physiological responses of plants to different environmental conditions. Ursula now works as a Senior Scientist, Control Environment Plant Physiologist at Bayer.
  • Berkley Walker was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Illinois, where he worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS). He took on a faculty position at Michigan State University as an assistant professor of Plant Biology

Lancaster University

  • Elizabete Carmo-Silva is a professor of Crop Physiology at the Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University, with her research focusing on improving global food security and resource-use efficiency by optimising crop performance in response to the changing climate. 
  • Doug Orr is currently a senior research associate at Lancaster University, an expert on Rubisco catalytic diversity, with experience in chloroplast transformation, biochemistry, and post-translational modifications in Rubisco. In September 2022, Doug will be taking up a lecturer position within Lancaster Environmental Centre to continue his work in investigating the incorporation of cyanobacterial carbon concentrating mechanisms into higher plants.  

Louisiana State University

  • Paul South is an assistant professor of Plant Physiology at Louisana State University. His expertise covers molecular genetics, molecular biology, and biochemistry. His long-term research goals focus on understanding photosynthetic and photorespiratory metabolism and using synthetic biology tools to understand gene regulation, the role of transport proteins, and using synthetic biology to improve crop productivity and quality.

In March 2022, we launched a new monthly postdoc researcher feature series “RIPE Spotlight” that shares our postdocs’ RIPE experiences and their new endeavors in their careers in photosynthesis research. 

If you are missing from this list, please email

For August’s continued celebration of RIPE’s 10 years, we are focusing on RIPE’s Thomas Joseph Higgins. TJ Higgins is an Honorary Fellow at the CSIRO in Canberra, whose work is focused on agricultural biotechnology and improving nutritive value and resistance to pests in food legumes. In 2021, Nigeria became the first country to approve the release of a genetically modified variety of cowpea—or most commonly known as the black eyed pea—that is insect-resistant, to smallholder farmers, combating hunger for millions of people. This work was led by Higgins, whose goal was initially to develop solutions for Australian farmers and later extended to helping farmers in Africa. 

TJ was recently awarded the 2021 Crawford Fund Medal for his leadership in developing insect-resistant GM cowpeas, now approved and being grown by smallholder farmers in both Nigeria. These efforts, more than a decade in the works, are currently delivering results that expect to increase yields by 20% and reduce chemical insecticide sprays from seven to two each season, helping reduce the input costs of farmers in West Africa, and hopefully eventually reduce poverty in the region. Cowpeas are a staple food and an important source of protein, cooked either boiled and eaten with rice or fermented and cooked in oil. Cowpea leaves also provide greens for a meal and the stalks are generally used as fodder for livestock. 

This month of September, we’re celebrating our collaboration with cowpea breeders from Sub-Saharan African countries and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) which led to a germplasm collection of more than 700 accessions assembled at Lancaster University.

Cowpeas are a key source of protein for millions of people, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, and beyond—used for human consumption, fodder for livestock, and a source of income. The joint work between the University of Illinois, the USDA-ARS, Lancaster University, and Nigerian universities used an important collection of 21 cowpea genotypes from Nigeria and other African countries. The Illinois team, consisting of Lisa Ainsworth and Anthony Digrado, had previously grown 50 different genotypes as part of their research on canopy architecture’s effects on canopy carbon assimilation. The RIPE team at Illinois screened these genotypes from a multi-parent advanced generational inter-cross (MAGIC) population for canopy architecture traits, canopy photosynthesis, and water-use efficiency in 2020, and are currently growing 276 genotypes at the Illinois Energy Farm–a collection made up of cowpeas from 50 countries in Africa, Asia, North and South America, Europe, and Australia.

We are nearing the end of our 10-year anniversary! For October, we want to highlight our recent communications milestone of using Zotero to bring all 85+ RIPE publications into a citation manager. Zotero is a free and open-source reference management software that manages bibliographic data and related research materials. For researchers who go through our publications list on the RIPE website, it may be overwhelming or hard to find certain papers and research topics. The RIPE Communications team imported all of RIPE’s papers into Zotero–and published them in a public library–for people to search using numerous tags that include all authors involved in a research paper, their institutions and related departments, the journal name in which the paper was published, the related key objectives, keywords that were in the paper, and the crop that was studied. Further, people can download a BibText file to import the publications into their preferred citation manager. We’d like to thank Ed Lochocki for bringing this to our attention, allowing us to organize our papers for easier access.

For November’s celebration of RIPE’s 10-year anniversary, we want to share our pride in our recent Illinois facilities that were built within the last two years. In 2020, the Crop Transformation Facility was built and completed. The two-story commercial office building was designed to provide lab and office space for researchers and crop technicians. In 2021, we opened our state-of-the-art High-Throughput Phenotyping Facility that includes an 8,000 square foot greenhouse and is located right across the CTF. RIPE researchers from all over the world have access to these facilities to send over plants or seeds to Illinois. That same year, we also installed a large-scale cable-driven camera system, called the RIPE Aerial Plant Phenotyping System (RAPPS)–or our SpiderCam–that is the largest camera system used for research in the US. This year, we welcomed visitors for in-person tours to explore what our facilities offer and see what our researchers have been up to. For more information and videos on our facilities, visit our Facilities page.

Come back for monthly updates throughout the year to celebrate our 10 years!

By: Amanda Nguyen || RIPE Communications Specialist