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Bill Gates wants to hack photosynthesis

What: “Tuning up photosynthesis” a hybrid scientific-explainer-slash-music-video created by the Gates Foundation to popularize the idea plants can be engineered in ways that improve upon nature.

Who: This work is being pioneered by RIPE—the Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency project with ties to the University of Illinois and eight other national and international research institutions.

Why we care: Plants grow their own energy through the sunlight-driven process of photosynthesis. The more energy they convert, the faster they can grow. Modify that process and crop productivity could basically double. “We have been aware that it’s inefficient for a long time,” says Stephen Long, the director of RIPE in the video. “What there hasn’t been an awareness of is that we might be able to change that.”

If Long’s team can prove that with tobacco, which propagates quickly and is easy to run tests on, then they could eventually apply it to important crops like rice, maize, and cassava. Endow those edibles with supersize ability, and you’ve just turned a native species into a life-sustaining and commercial commodity for many people living in impoverished places within the developing world.

But for now, this is just an intellectual exercise that involves computer modeling. In the video, Long shares three jargon-rich working theories about “speeding up the molecule that photosynthesis uses to capture carbon dioxide”; figuring out how to help leaves adjust faster to shifting light conditions; and tinkering with how plants are “metabolizing the product of a process called photorespiration.” By pairing these concepts with cool animations, footage of white-coated lab workers doing science-y things, the requisite steaming cryotank, and an upbeat soundtrack to amp up the voiceover only boosts audience appeal.

The Gates Foundation helps fund this work, so Gates himself obviously sees the future applications for social good. “With a growing population and changes in diets—like a greater demand for more meat as people earn higher incomes—we’ll need to produce 60 to 70% more food by 2050,” writes Gates in a post on his GateNotes blog. “At the same time, climate change is putting additional stresses on our food supply because of erratic rainfall, severe droughts, and the spread of pests and crop diseases.”

By: Ben Paynter who is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.


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