Agricultural Scientists Engineer Crops to Bypass Photosynthetic Glitch For Higher Yield

Genetic modification has gotten a lot of flak over the past few years, mostly out of concern over the danger that this will actually reduce their nutritional value (and, perhaps, monopolize agriculture). But genetic modification can have some benefits.  Indeed, one intention is to try and make them impervious to extreme environmental or to various types of disease.  But scientists have also found that some types of genetic modification can also make crops more bountiful. 

Humans metabolize proteins and carbohydrates to make energy but plants use light from the sun to do the same thing; only when plants convert sunlight to energy, it is called photosynthesis.  Most crops on our planet, though, have a type of photosynthetic handicap that results in an evolutionary development called photorespiration that dramatically reduces the yield potential of most crops. 

Scientists from the University of Illinois and the United States Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service report that crops genetically engineered to bypass this photorespiratory glitch could actually be up to 40 percent more productive.  

The landmark study is just part of a bigger international project—Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency (RIPE)—which is aimed at engineering crops for more effective photosynthesis in order to sustainably increase food productivity all over the world.  While some genetic engineering is quite controversial, this project actually has backing from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as well as the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) and the United Kingdom Government’s Department for International Development (DFID). 

Lead study author Paul South is a molecular biologist with the Agricultural Research Service. He explains that photorespiration is, essentially, anti-photosynthesis.  The process actually costs the plant “precious energy and resources that it could have invested in photosynthesis to produce more growth and yield.”

At a time when food scarcity is a growing concern, Principal Investigator Donald Ort advises that this could be a crucial development. He claims “We could feed up to 200 million additional people with the calories lost to photorespiration in the Midwestern US each year.”  

The Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology Robert Emerson Professor of Plant Science and Crop Sciences goes on to say, “Reclaiming even a portion of those calories across the world would go a long way to meeting the 21stCentury’s rapidly expanding food demands—driven by population growth and more affluent high-calorie diets.”