A team of American scientists claim that they have discovered a way to overcome natural restrictions in the process of photosynthesis which limit crop productivity. This development has enabled them to engineer tobacco plants which can grow 40 percent larger than normal in field trials.
They believe their method can also be applied to staple crops such as rice and wheat.
Their research — which involved two years of field trials — was centered around avoiding a glitch in photosynthesis which produces toxic compounds as carbon dioxide and water are turned into sugars which the plant feeds on. These toxic compounds limit the plant’s growth and yield.
“We’ve tried three different biochemical designs with the aim of shortcutting this very energy expensive process,” said lead author Dr Paul South with the US Agricultural Research Service.
“It’s been estimated that in plants like soybeans, rice and fruit and vegetables, it can be a significant drag on yield by as much as 36 percent. We’ve tried to engineer this shortcut to make them more energy efficient – and in field trials this translated into a 40 percent increase in plant biomass.”
The problem itself becomes more prevalent at higher temperatures and under drought conditions.
“Our goal is to build better plants that can take the heat today and in the future, to help equip farmers with the technology they need to feed the world,” said the study’s co-author Amanda Cavanagh.
The researchers chose tobacco plants for their experiment because they are comparatively easy to modify, and form a fully closed canopy in the field like many food crops.
“We are really hoping that this technology will help further optimise agriculture so that we are not using outside inputs as much and we are growing more food on less land,” said Dr South.
The researchers acknowledged that genetic modification of food crops continues to be a controversial topic in many countries around the world. But they argue that a lengthy review process could ensure that food crops developed using this technology are accepted by both farmers and consumers.
“The research that’s necessary to prove that genetic modification has low environmental impact and the food produced is safe for consumption takes a minimum of 10 years and many more dollars in research funds,” said Dr South.
The study has been published in the journal Science, and is being funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research and the UK’s Department for International Development.