Scientists aim to improve photosynthesis to increase food and fuel production

29th Mar 2011

Scientists in the UK and USA have today (28 March) been awarded funding totalling £6.11M/$10.3M to improve the process of photosynthesis. Photosynthesis allows biological systems to convert sunlight into food and the source of all the fossil fuels we burn today. Four transatlantic research teams will explore ways to overcome limitations in photosynthesis which could then lead to ways of significantly increasing the yield of important crops for food production or sustainable bioenergy.

This research could possibly even lead to the blueprint to make a fully artificial leaf capable of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The funding has been awarded by the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the US National Science Foundation (NSF) in a pioneering undertaking for the best minds from the USA and UK to join forces to explore this important research. Despite the fact that Photosynthesis is the basis of energy capture from the sun in plants, algae and other organisms it has some fundamental limitations.

Professor Janet Allen, Director of Research at BBSRC, said "Photosynthesis has evolved in plants, algae and some other bacteria and in each case the mechanism does the best possible job for the organism in question. However, there are trade-offs in nature which mean that photosynthesis is not as efficient as it could be - for many important crops such as wheat, barley, potatoes and sugar beet, the theoretical maximum is only 5%, depending on how it is measured. There is scope to improve it for processes useful to us, for example increasing the amount of food crop or energy biomass a plant can produce from the same amount of sunlight.

"This is hugely ambitious research but if the scientists we are supporting can achieve their aims it will be a profound achievement."

Each team includes scientists from a range of disciplines and from both the UK and US. This means the projects can draw on the best expertise and infrastructure from each nation. This approach will build links between the scientific communities and lay the foundations for future collaborations.

Three of the research projects will focus on improving a reaction driven by an enzyme called RuBisCO, which is a widely recognised bottleneck in the photosynthesis pathway. By attempting to transfer parts from algae and bacteria into plants, the researchers hope to make the environment in the plants' cells around RuBisCO richer in carbon dioxide which will allow photosynthesis to produce sugars more efficiently.

The fourth project aims to harness the excess light energy that reaches photosynthetic organisms but cannot be used due to bottlenecks in natural photosynthesis. This project aims to transfer high energy electrons from a cyanobacterial cell where there is excess that would otherwise be turned to heat to an adjacent cell which will be engineered to produce food or fuel products.

"Photosynthesis is essential for life on Earth," said Joann Roskoski, NSF's Acting Assistant Director for Biological Sciences. "By providing food and generating oxygen, it has made our planet hospitable for life. This process is also critical in addressing the food and fuel challenges of the future. For decades, NSF has invested in photosynthesis research projects that range from biophysical studies to ecosystem analyses at a macroscale. The Ideas Lab in photosynthesis was an opportunity to stimulate and support different types of projects than what we have in our portfolio in order to address a critical bottleneck to enhancing the photosynthetic process."

Prof Allen continued: "The world faces significant challenges in the coming decades - and chief among these is producing enough sustainable and affordable food for a growing population and replacing diminishing fossil fuels. Even a small change to the efficiency of photosynthesis would make a huge impact on these problems. As these are global challenges it is apt that we are working across national and scientific boundaries to put together truly international and multidisciplinary research teams."

The four research projects have been funded by BBSRC and NSF following a multidisciplinary workshop held by the funders in California in September 2010. The workshop, called the Ideas Lab, enabled scientists from different disciplines and institutions in the UK and USA to explore ideas and potential projects before submitting them to BBSRC and NSF.

The projects are:

CAPP (Combining algal and plant photosynthesis) - University of Cambridge, John Innes Centre, Oxford Brookes University, Carnegie Institute of Washington. Total funding: £1.25M

EPP (Exploiting prokaryotic proteins to improve plant photosynthetic efficiency) - University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Rothamsted Research, Cornell University, University of California, Berkeley. Total funding: £1.36M

MAGIC (Multi-level Approaches for Generating Increased CO2) - University of Glasgow, University of Cambridge, University of Warwick, Penn State University, University of California, Berkeley. Total funding: £1.6M

Plug and Play Photosynthesis for RuBisCO independent fuels - University of Glasgow, Arizona State University, University of Southampton, Imperial College London, Penn State University, Michigan State University, Emory University School of Medicine. Total funding: £1.9M

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