There’s no question that plants are better than most other life forms at converting carbon dioxide and sunlight into the sugars that form the basis of our global food web — and eventually, humans’ entire food supply. But fact of the matter is, with conversion rates hovering around 2 percent for our best crop fields, they’re by no means great. Even a slight increase in the efficiency with which they turn solar energy to biomass could dramatically boost crop productivity and so reduce the need to clear more land as demand for food skyrockets and the yield gains garnered by the Green Revolution level out in the years ahead.

As reported at SciDevNet, researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign recently published a paper in the journal Cell that proposes using supercomputing and genetic engineering to do nature one better.

The paper, “Meeting the Global Food Demand of the Future by Engineering Crop Photosynthesis and Yield Potential,” calls for exploring and, if possible, exploiting, a number of modifications to photosynthesis that could improve its efficiency, from better balancing the light-capturing and sugar-making parts of the process to making the most of the sun energy captured and optimizing the system for current atmospheric CO2 levels. One approach, for example, would be to take genes from plants such as maize and sorghum that use the efficient “C4” photosynthesis process and insert them into wheat, rice and others that use the less efficient but more common “C3” process. Another would be to use genetic modification to expand the spectrum of light waves crop plants can use to photosynthesize.

The authors assert that the time is right to take on the task of improving photosynthesis, thanks to recent advances in knowledge of how photosynthesis works at the molecular level, high-performance computing that lets us model and optimize biochemical processes, and genome editing and synthetic biology capabilities. What’s needed yet: an even better understanding of photosynthesis, enhanced capability to strategically modify plant genomes, and greater societal acceptance of the concept of using genetic engineering to improve agriculture.

“Photosynthesis, which has been improved little in crops and falls far short of its biological limit, emerges as the key remaining route to increase the genetic yield potential of our major crops,” they conclude. View Ensia homepage

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