Alternative pathway to photorespiration protects growth and productivity at elevated temperatures in a model crop
Adapting crops to warmer growing season temperatures is a major challenge in mitigating the impacts of climate change on crop production. Warming temperatures drive greater evaporative demand and can directly interfere with both reproductive and vegetative physiological processes. Most of the world’s crop species have C3 photosynthetic metabolism for which increasing temperature means higher rates of photorespiration, wherein the enzyme responsible for fixing CO2 fixes O2 instead followed by an energetically costly recycling pathway that spans several cell compartments. In C3 crops like wheat, rice and soybean, photorespiration translates into large yield losses that are predicted to increase as global temperature warms. Engineering less energy-intensive alternative photorespiratory pathways into crop chloroplasts drives increases in C3 biomass production under agricultural field conditions, but the efficacy of these pathways in mitigating the impact of warmer growing temperatures has not been tested. We grew tobacco plants expressing an alternative photorespiratory pathway under current and elevated temperatures (+5 °C) in agricultural field conditions. Engineered plants exhibited higher photosynthetic quantum efficiency under heated conditions than the control plants, and produced 26% (between 16% and 37%) more total biomass than WT plants under heated conditions, compared to 11% (between 5% and 17%) under ambient conditions. That is, engineered plants sustained 19% (between 11% and 21%) less yield loss under heated conditions compared to non-engineered plants. These results support the theoretical predictions of temperature impacts on photorespiratory losses and provide insight toward the optimisation strategies required to help sustain or improve C3 crop yields in a warming climate.