BBSRC and NSF renew funding to improve photosynthesis to feed and fuel the world

3rd Jun 2014

Three research teams – each comprised of scientists from the United Kingdom and the United States have been awarded a second round of funding to build on their research findings and develop new ways to improve photosynthesis.

The main goal of this potentially high-impact research is to develop methods to increase the yields of important crops that are harvested for food and sustainable biofuels.

The additional funding is from BBSRC and the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the United States, and will total around £5M over three years. Each team is receiving additional funding because of the significant progress achieved via the initial round of funding, which was also jointly awarded by BBSRC and the NSF in 2011.

Photosynthesis is a relatively inefficient process, usually capturing only about five per cent of available energy, depending on how efficiency is measured. Nevertheless, some species of plants, algae and bacteria have evolved efficiency-boosting mechanisms that reduce energy losses or enhance carbon dioxide delivery to cells during photosynthesis.

Each of the three funded research teams is working in a new and unique way to improve, combine or engineer these types of efficiency-boosting mechanisms, so they may eventually be used in important crops that provide food or sustainable biofuels.

Scientists have long sought ways to increase the efficiency of photosynthesis. The potentially transformational methods being pursued by the three funded teams were developed during an "Ideas Lab" workshop held in 2010, specially designed to generate innovative, potentially transformative research projects that might open longstanding bottlenecks to photosynthesis research.

If successful in helping to open these bottlenecks, any of the three research projects could provide critical support for efforts to address the challenges of fuel and food security.

Jackie Hunter, BBSRC Chief Executive, said: "Nature barely skims the surface when it comes to photosynthesis and making use of the sun's energy. There is huge room for improvement and these research projects are taking steps to help us to unlock hidden potential that could benefit us all. Using the sun's energy more efficiently means a greater potential to produce fuel, food, fibres, useful chemicals and much more."

John Wingfield, NSF's assistant director for the Directorate of Biological Sciences, said: "Photosynthesis captures abundant and free solar energy and generates food and oxygen for the planet. Emerging technologies, like synthetic biology, are used in these potentially transformative projects to address the long-standing quest to increase efficiency of photosynthesis."

Riaz Bhunnoo, Head of the BBSRC-led Global Food Security Programme, said: "To help meet the challenge of global food security it is imperative that we work in partnership, bringing together the brightest minds from across the world. These joint projects will make a significant contribution to the global research effort."

Gregory Warr, an NSF program director, said: "These projects, if successful, could transform the way we generate the fuel, food, clothing and shelter that plants and microbes provide to us."


Funded projects

Plug-and-play photosynthesis led by Anne Jones of Arizona State University:

The plug-and-play team's overall goal is to capture unused energy, which would otherwise be dissipated, from a light-capturing photosynthetic cell-and transfer it to a second cell for fuel production. One way to carry out this energy transfer is to repurpose bacterial nanowires, which are tiny, electrically conductive wires that are present in some bacteria for reasons that are not yet completely understood. These wires will be bioengineered to form an electrical bridge between light-capturing cells and fuel-producing cells – so that the wires will conduct energy from the former to the latter. The research team is also working to develop another approach to intercellular energy transfer by creating new chemical pathways that would divert energy from the bacterial light-capturing cell to a designed biofuel-producing cell.


Multi-Level Approaches for Generating Carbon Dioxide (MAGIC) led by John Golbeck of Pennsylvania State University:

MAGIC is aimed at engineering a light-driven carbon dioxide pump that will increase the availability of carbon dioxide to an enzyme that promotes photosynthesis, and will thereby increase photosynthetic efficiency. The team is preparing to incorporate its pump into plant cells to determine if resulting increases in the availability of carbon dioxide to plant cells will increase their growth.


Combining Algal and Plant Photosynthesis (CAPP) led by Martin Jonikas of Stanford University:

Chlamydomonas, a unicellular algae, has a pyrenoid – a ball-shaped structure that helps the algae assimilate carbon to improve its photosynthetic efficiency. CAPP is aiming to, for the first time, transplant the algal pyrenoid and its associated components into higher plants-with hopes of improving these plants' photosynthetic efficiency and thus their productivity. The team has made progress towards the development of a protein-based sensor that will be used to compare levels of bicarbonate (a form of carbon dioxide) in several cellular compartments in algae. This sensor will be used to help explain the algae's carbon concentrating mechanism and help evaluate the pyrenoid's effectiveness after it has been transplanted into higher plants.

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