Scientists fix natural glitch in crop plants

GLOBAL CROPS RI Farm
BREAKTHROUGH: Four unmodified plants (left) grow beside four plants (right) engineered to bypass photorespiration/ (Photo: Claire Benjamin)

SCIENTISTS have engineered a major breakthrough in crop production, creating a shortcut for a glitch in the way plants convert sunlight into energy through photosynthesis and making them 40-per-cent more productive in real-world conditions.

To deal with that glitch, plants had evolved an energy-expensive process called photorespiration that drastically suppresses their yield potential.

The international project is engineering crops to photosynthesize more efficiently as a way to sustainably increase worldwide food productivity.

Principal investigator Donald Ort, professor of plant science and crop sciences at the University of Illinois, says up to 200 million additional people could be fed with the calories lost to photorespiration in the Midwestern US alone each year.

“Reclaiming even a portion of these calories across the world would go a long way to meeting the 21st Century’s rapidly expanding food demands,” he says.

Photosynthesis uses the enzyme Rubisco – the planet’s most abundant protein – and sunlight energy to turn carbon dioxide and water into sugars that fuel plant growth and yield.

Over millennia, Rubisco has become a victim of its own success, creating an oxygen-rich atmosphere. Unable to reliably distinguish between the two molecules, Rubisco grabs oxygen instead of carbon dioxide about 20 per cent of the time, resulting in a plant-toxic compound that must be recycled through photorespiration.

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