Photosynthesis, the process through which plants take in carbon dioxide and produce food using energy from the sun, has been working well to support life on Earth for quite some time.
The protein Rubisco plays a key function, that scientists from the University of Illinois are focused on repairing. “It has what we like to call one fatal flaw,” said biologist Amanda Cavanagh. Rubisco picks up oxygen as well as CO2, forming a toxic compound that it has to detoxify, requiring lots of the plant’s energy; this lessens the amount of food it can produce.
Cavanagh and her cohorts, through the Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency (RIPE) program, are “hacking” photosynthesis—inserting new genes which halt the current detox process and create a more efficient one. The resulting tobacco plants grew faster and were 40 percent larger. The next plants targeted for trial are tomatoes, soybeans, and black-eyed peas, a staple crop for sub-Saharan farmers.
The USDA and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are funding the research, recently published in Science. Cornell University’s Maureen Hanson calls it a “major breakthrough” in engineering photosynthesis to increase crop production.
Questions remain: will the modification actually produce more food or just more stalks and leaves—and will the crops be safe to eat?
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