Two down, one to go. Researchers have completed the second of three major steps needed to turbocharge photosynthesis in crops such as wheat and rice, something that could boost yields by around 36 to 60 percent for many plants. Because it’s more efficient, the new photosynthesis method could also cut the amount of fertilizer and water needed to grow food.
Researchers at Cornell University and Rothamsted Research in the United Kingdom successfully transplanted genes from a type of bacteria—called cyanobacteria—into tobacco plants, which are often used in research. The genes allow the plant to produce a more efficient enzyme for converting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into sugars and other carbohydrates. The results were published Wednesday in the journal Nature.
Scientists have long known that some plants are much more efficient at turning carbon dioxide into sugar than other plants. These fast-growing plants—called C4 plants—include corn and many types of weeds. But 75 percent of the world’s crops (known as C3 plants) use a slower and less efficient form of photosynthesis. Researchers have been attempting for a long time to change some C3 plants—including wheat, rice, and potatoes—into C4 plants. The approach has been given a boost lately by novel high-precision gene-editing technologies that are being applied to the C4 Rice Project (see “Why We Will Need Genetically Modified Foods”).
The Cornell and Rothamsted researchers took a simpler approach. Rather than attempting to convert a C3 plant into a C4 plant by changing its anatomy and adding new cell types and structures, the researchers modified components of existing cells. “If you can have a simpler mechanism that doesn’t require anatomical changes, that’s pretty darn good,” says Daniel Voytas, director of the Center for Genome Engineering at the University of Minnesota.
Turbocharging Photosynthesis to Feed the World