A research team working at the University of Illinois’s Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency (RIPE) program say they’re “hacking photosynthesis.”
Experimenting on tobacco shoots, researchers dissected two vitally important processes by which plants transform the sun’s energy into chemical energy.
During photosynthesis, the chemical rubisco is activated and gathers carbon dioxide from the air to produce sugar molecules. However, one or two oxygen molecules will often slip into the mix, triggering a necessary energy detoxification process, thereby exhausting the plant’s energy and slowing overall food production.
The scientists successfully introduced a new gene to their crops, photorespiration, which will work as a filter and keep unwanted oxygen molecules far away. Their studies were published in the journal Science.
Amanda Cavanagh, a biologist and post-doctoral researcher, “They grew faster, and they grew up to 40 percent bigger" than normal tobacco plants, adding that they are eager to move on to testing on “staple food crops.”
Cornell University researcher, Maureen Hanson, cheered the scientific breakthrough, saying, “This is a very important finding," she says. "It's really the first major breakthrough showing that one can indeed engineer photosynthesis and achieve a major increase in crop productivity."
Earlier this year during an interview with Newsweek, Paul South, a research molecular biologist with the United States Department of Agriculture, said, “Currently, 815 million people go hungry every day. With changing diets, increased urbanization... it is estimated that food production needs to increase by as much as 70-100 percent to supply enough food to meet demand.”
Experts pointed out tobacco reproduces much faster than most other plants, ergo it could take another 20 years for the modified crops to manifest globally and meet the desired production level. But it’s one step closer to ending world hunger.
“If even some of the 40 percent increase that was observed in this study is translated to major food crops such as wheat, rice, and soybean it could be a significant contribution to meeting the demands of food security in the next 30 years,” South said.