Scientists claim crop yields could be significantly boosted by tweaking the way plants themselves make their own food. By manipulating the process of photosynthesis, scientists have been able to increase crop output by ensuring the vegetation uses the sun’s energy more efficiently.
The world’s population is steadily rising, and could approach 10 billion in the next 25 years. Additionally, the urbanization and industrialization is steadily pumping more greenhouse gases, making the atmosphere warmer than ever. Essentially it means farmers will have to grow crops that will have to withstand hotter and drier conditions. With ever more mouths to feed, and crops under threat of global warming, experts have long worried there might not be enough food for everybody.
Fortunately, researchers have come up with a solution that can boost crop yields. They have achieved the feat by carefully enhancing levels of three proteins that are primarily responsible for photosynthesis, the process in which vegetation absorbs sunlight through the exposed areas like the leaves, and convert it into energy. Essentially, the researchers have managed to make the process of photosynthesis more efficient to increase plant yield.
The researches relied on several years’ worth of computational analysis, laboratory testing and field experiments to single out the proteins that were then manipulated in the study. Interestingly, scientists claim to have successfully hacked the photosynthesis process in which green plants use sunlight to convert carbon dioxide and water to glucose and oxygen, reported the Daily Mail.
The process is quite primitive, and hasn’t undergone significant evolution to keep up with the exponential rise in demand. Hence, by zeroing in on the deficiencies in the process, researchers found new ways to ensure the plants soak up more of the incident sunlight. This allowed the plants to convert sunlight in lesser amount of time, allowing them to grow faster. Crops grown using the manipulated proteins eventually offered substantially higher crop yields in the same amount of time the crops take when grown using traditional methods, without any modification. In other words farmers could now grow more number of crops in a calendar year, and produce substantially more amount of food.
To test their method, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of California, Berkeley used tobacco plants as they are the simplest to tinker with, reported Technology. These genetically-modified tobacco plants increased in productivity by between 14 and 20 percent. While many experts have expressed their reservation about producing extra tobacco plants, for obvious reasons, scientists are confident that given enough research and development in this direction, they could revolutionize the production of food crops, said University of Illinois plant biology and crop sciences professor Stephen Long, who led the study.
“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. “
How did the scientists improve photosynthesis? Interestingly, the scientists targeted a process plants use naturally to protect themselves from excessive amount of sunlight. When exposed to more sunlight than is needed, plants protect themselves by making chemical alterations within the leaves. These modified leaves become more efficient at selectively absorbing sunlight, and dissipate the excess energy as heat. While plants do not sweat like animals and humans, they do manage their intake of sunlight through a process called Non-Photochemical Quenching (NPQ).
Unfortunately, even if a cloud blocks direct sunlight, the NPQ doesn’t deactivate immediately. Hence, when in shade, the photosynthesis process is hampered. By using a supercomputer, the researchers realized there were substantial loses depending on the plant type and prevailing temperature. The researchers manipulated the proteins to significantly speed-up the deactivation of NPQ, and in turn, accelerate the recovery of photosynthesis.
For a long some time, scientists across the world have been experimenting with multiple techniques to increase crop yield. Other promising methods to increase photosynthesis of wheat, soy, and rice crops involve exposing plants to copious amounts of Carbon Dioxide (CO2). Interestingly, increasing amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere due to pollution isn’t going to positively affect crop yields because there are many other harmful gasses released simultaneously in the process.
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