Improving plant photosynthesis to increase crop yields

11th Dec 2012

An important new project, funded Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has been launched which will seek to explore new ways to improve plant photosynthesis in order to improve crop yields. This project takes seven innovative approaches to overcome limitations in the photosynthetic mechanisms of 'C3 plants' that make up the majority of plants on earth.

The project, led by the University of Illinois, will seek to bring together an international team of scientists to advance our understanding of photosynthesis with a view to achieving yield increases of key C3 crops such as rice, wheat and legumes. Yield increases of these crops has stagnated in the last decade, which is of great concern given that the UNFAO predicts that we will need to increase food production by around 70% in the next 35 years. The initial project emphasis will be on rice, with grain legumes and cassava as secondary targets.

This project aligns with the foundation's Agricultural Development strategy, as it is hoped the work will support innovation to increase sustainable crop productivity for small-holder farmers in the developing world. Led by the University of Illinois, it will involve scientists at Rothamsted Research alongside the Universities of Essex, Berkley, Louisiana State, Australian National University, Shanghai and others.

Rothamsted Research will lead on delivering one of these seven innovative approaches, by working on transplanting better plant Rubiscos, an essential enzyme required in photosynthesis to convert atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2 ) into energy stored in the plant.

Large amounts of the Rubiscos enzyme are necessary in crop leaves and accounts for around half of the leaf soluble protein. The scientists believe that the reason for this is that Rubisco is not very efficient in C3 plants because it is optimised for the lower atmospheric CO2 levels of the past 25 million years and not optimized for today's elevated CO2 levels, which climate change is likely to exacerbate. However, the Rubisco of other types of plant leaves (C4 plants) appear optimized in comparison to their C3 ancestors, with partial adaptation to a higher CO2 environment. The objective will be to replace crop Rubisco with a better adapted form.

Leader of objective 3, Prof. Martin Parry said "Rothamsted Research is very proud to be involved in this project. It fits well into our overall aims to deliver the knowledge and new practices to increase crop productivity and quality and to develop environmentally sustainable solutions for food and energy production". He added that he believed "Rothamsted Research would add a valuable contribution, as longest running agricultural research station in the world, we have continually provided cutting-edge science and innovation to agriculture".

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