Photosynthesis holds the key to the air we breathe and the food we eat. It’s the process by which green plants and trees use sunlight to convert water and carbon dioxide into sugars that fuel their growth.
But it’s not as efficient as it could be.
Four scientists at the University of Illinois report they’ve created a shortcut that allows plants to grow larger and, ultimately, could produce crops in greater abundance.
Their technique, reported in the journal Science, doesn’t alter photosynthesis but makes it more efficient. The tobacco plants on which they field-tested it grew 40 percent larger. They hope to eventually do the same for soybeans, rice, potatoes and other crops.
“We’re sort of hacking photosynthesis,” says biologist Amanda Cavanagh, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Illinois and co-author of the study.
Paul Scott, a geneticist for the federal Agricultural Research Service, was the chief author of the landmark study, carried out as part of an international project, Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency (RIPE).
RIPE promises to provide royalty-free access to its breakthroughs to farmers in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. It’s funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the U.S.-created Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research and the United Kingdom Department for International Development.
The United States is a leader in harnessing new techniques to grow crops that are more resistant to disease and more abundant.