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Improved photosynthesis increases fuel, food production

Photonics Spectra
Dec 2011
Ashley N. Paddock, ashley.paddock@photonics.com

SWINDON, UK — Overcoming some fundamental limitations of photosynthesis could lead to major increases in crop yields, bioenergy and the production of renewable chemicals, and five new research projects have taken up the cause.

The new research complements four programs funded last year via an Ideas Lab in collaboration with the National Science Foundation and has received approximately £2 million in funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). Together, the nine projects cover the whole process of photosynthesis, from the shape of the crop canopy and the structures of individual leaves to molecular-level light capture, and sugar production and storage.

"[Photosynthesis] is one of the most important pathways in all biology, and small increases in the efficiency of photosynthesis could be harnessed to provide major increases in biomass yields," said Dr. Riaz Bhunnoo, BBSRC program leader for global food security. "Improving plant yields is going to be important in providing solutions to many of the challenges society faces, including providing sustainable, affordable and nutritious food and renewable sources of energy and chemicals."

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has predicted that we will need to produce 70 percent more food by 2050 in ways that are economically, socially and environmentally sustainable, Bhunnoo said.

Improving photosynthesis proves to be a challenging task, one that requires collaboration among engineers, chemists, physicists and more traditional biologists. This new program will enable a shared "out of the box" effort.

"The aim of the call for applications was to encourage innovative multidisciplinary proposals for research to improve the efficiency of photosynthesis," Bhunnoo said. "The proposals consisted of ideas that had the potential to lead to a step-change in our knowledge, rather than an incremental advance."

One of the funded projects, at the University of Exeter, is trying to improve a reaction driven by the enzyme Rubisco, widely recognized as a bottleneck in the photosynthetic pathway. The research will test whether making the cell environment richer in carbon dioxide will allow Rubisco to work more efficiently. If successful, the idea could be applied to crops including wheat, potatoes, rice and legumes.

Scientists at the University of Manchester are investigating the role of fumaric acid as a temporary carbon store to prevent the buildup of sugar molecules in leaves that otherwise would inhibit photosynthesis.


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