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  • Writer's pictureAlain Lord Mounir

Could we use the benefits of photosynthesis to feed the world

Updated: Aug 2, 2021

If we corrected the flaws in photosynthesis this could definitely help increase the productivity of our most important crops.

We all learned in our school lessons about ecology, photosynthesis and how plants use the energy of sunlight to convert it to carbon dioxide and water to food. This incredible process is responsible for virtually all life on Earth, providing us with the energy we need and the oxygen we breathe.

Photosynthesis has huge flaws as well.

Plants are quite inefficient when it comes to using energy from the sun. Only a fraction of the sunlight that shines on a plant ends up fueling its growth, which means our crops produce much less food than they could possibly be.

Several international groups of researchers aim to solve this problem by finding ways to optimize photosynthesis. If successful, their research should double the productivity of some of our most important crops, such as rice, corn and soybeans.

A much needed breakthrough because the world is facing a crisis at the table. With a growing population and with more people in the middle class changing diets like increased demand for meat-based protein as people earn higher incomes, we will need to produce 60 to 70 percent more food by 2050. At the same time, climate change is putting additional pressure on the food supply chain due to severe droughts and the spread of insect pests and crop diseases not to mention change climatic

Those most at risk of going hungry in the years to come are the poorest people in the world. They live in areas with high population growth and often depend on agriculture both to feed their families and to earn an income.

No single solution will solve this global food crisis. We will have to develop innovations in all areas of agriculture to increase productivity. Improved seed varieties for crops resistant to drought, floods, pests and diseases.

One promising area of research is to make plants absorb sunlight more efficiently. While light is essential for a plant's survival, too much high intensity light can damage the plant. To protect themselves, plants have developed mechanisms to siphon off some of the solar energy as heat when exposed to direct sunlight. But it creates a problem when the sun goes behind a cloud and the plant is in the shade. The plant's protective mechanism does not quickly adapt to reduced light, inhibiting the process of photosynthesis for minutes or sometimes hours. Researchers have found a way to speed up this transition, allowing the plant to continue photosynthesis even with light fluctuations.

Another critical area of research involves an enzyme known as Rubisco, which captures carbon dioxide and turns it into sugars for the plant. Some researchers are working to speed up Rubisco activity in the plant, which would result in higher crop productivity.

Other researchers are trying to correct an inefficiency created by Rubisco: it has trouble distinguishing carbon dioxide from oxygen. So about 20% of the time Rubisco accidentally grabs an oxygen molecule instead of a carbon dioxide molecule. This results in the creation of a compound that must be recycled by the plant through a process called photorespiration. Photorespiration is long and complicated, costing a plant energy and resources that it could use for growth. To solve this problem, the researchers devised an alternative route to dramatically shorten the photorespiration process and save energy. Lab tested, this fix boosted plant growth by up to 40%.

Most of the field trials of these photosynthetic enhancements have been done using tobacco plants. Although tobacco plants are not food crops, they are a practical proof-of-concept crop because they are easy to genetically transform and they produce a large amount of seeds, thereby shortening test cycles. In the next phase of research, scientists are working to transfer these new genetic traits to food crops, including cowpeas, cassava and soybeans.

Yet these high-yielding crops are years away from being grown on farms around the world. And they would have to pass safety tests to be accepted by consumers


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