‘Photosynthesis on steroids’ could pump up crop yields

Scientists in the U.S. have hacked a plant’s genes to make it use sunlight more efficiently — a breakthrough that could eventually dramatically increase the amount of food grown.

Think of it as photosynthesis on steroids. Photosynthesis is how plants convert sunlight, carbon dioxide and water into food. But it’s an inefficient process, using less than 1 percent of the energy available, scientists said.

By genetically modifying part of the plant’s protective system, which kicks into gear when too much sunlight beams down, scientists were able to increase leaf growth a whopping 14 to 20 percent, according to a study published November 17 in the journal Science.

A plant’s protective system moves slowly, according to researchers, which means that leaves do not get the optimal amount of energy from the sun.

Stephen Long of the University of Illinois said he started by targeting tobacco plants because they were easy to study.

“Now that we know it works, it won’t be too difficult to do it with other crops,” he said. “If you look at crops around the world, it would [increase yield] many million tons of food.”

That’s still at least 15 years away, but this is the first time scientists have been able to do something like this, Long said.