Researchers have managed to modify the photosynthetic process of plants to improve their crop yields up to 20 percent.

The experiment has been hypothesized for years, and many even doubted that it could be achieved, but thanks to efforts of computer analysis and field experimentation, scientists have managed to determine which proteins can improve overall crop production. In essence, the study found out that leaves receive way more sunlight than what they can absorb, which eventually leads to the leaf bleaching and falling from the plant. This is avoided by the plant, which scatters excess solar energy by emitting heat. Researchers have managed to optimize this process.

The study was led by Stephen Long from the University of Illinois. .Image credit:

Allowing plants to grow better

The team based their experiments on tobacco plants as it is one of the easier plants to genetically modify. Then, researchers focused on the process known as nonphotochemical quenching, used by plants to administer the energy obtained from the sun.

The critical point is that the leaf’s sun shield that avoids bleaching takes a while to turn back off whenever clouds appear or the leaf becomes obscured by the shade of other plants, leading a to an inefficient photosynthesis.

Fixing this process allowed tobacco plants to yield a 20 percent increase in biomass in just 22 days, a result labeled as “ground-breaking” in the field of bioengineering.

“To see something like that increase in a field trial was astonishing. We think this could still be bigger than we have now,” stated to Science magazine geneticist Krishna Niyogi of the University of California, Berkeley, who did not participate in the study.

Modifying plants is a process that has evolved throughout the years to obtain better crops, where the genetic code is intervened, for example, to create shorter plants with thicker stems that can hold more branches of grain, as it is the case of genetically-engineered wheat.

After the initial findings, Niyogi envisioned altering photosynthesis of different crops, seeing that the photosynthesis of corn is extremely rapid compared to that of other plants. By altering plant’s enzymes and pathways, researchers will improve the biological processes that let the plant grow and reproduce, making them more efficient.

Nonphotochemical quenching is a process that’s ideal for plants located in the wild, where their primary function is to survive and reproduce. But farm crops are needed by humans to yield the largest biomass possible.

To improve the photosynthetic process of other plants, Niyogi would add to the crop the genes that relax sun protection, allowing for increased protein levels to accelerate how quickly the plant responds to being in the shade.

Improving the primary process through which plants obtain energy is equivalent to improving a car’s engine. Durability and efficiency will increase, and perhaps there will not be any unwanted repercussion since the plant will now be allowed to consume more sunlight in less time.

The new findings will allow having better-yielding plants, which in turn will increase food production without much effort, other than planting additional seeds.

Source: Science