Bioengineering Photosynthesis Boosts Crop Growth by 40 Percent

Malthusian predictions of global famines keep receding.


Haley Ahlers/RIPE Project/Illinois

Researchers at the University of Illinois report in Science that they have engineered crops that are 40 percent more productive than conventional crops.

Green plants containing the protein rubisco use sunlight to convert water and atmospheric carbon dioxide into life-sustaining organic compounds, such as glucose. Photosynthesis is also responsible for almost all of the oxygen in the atmosphere. There is, however, a glitch in the process. About 20 percent of the time, rubisco grabs oxygen molecules instead of carbon dioxide, resulting in the creation of a plant-toxic compound that must be eliminated through the process of photorespiration. Photorespiration uses up resources that could have been devoted to producing more growth and yield.

The Illinois researchers have engineered new detoxifying pathways that save enough resources to boost plant growth by 40 percent. They report that these engineered plants developed faster, grew taller, and produced about 40 percent more biomass, most of which was found in 50-percent-larger stems. Because higher temperatures result in less efficient photosynthesis and greater levels of photorespiration, the researchers believe that this bioengineering feat will help farmers maintain and increase yields in the face of future climate change.

The researchers tested their hypotheses in tobacco, but the team is now seeking to use their techniques to boost the yield of soybean, cowpea, rice, potato, tomato, and eggplant.

Thus do Malthusian predictions of global famines continue to recede. "In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate," declared the Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich in his 1968 book The Population Bomb. Needless to say, he was wrong. Thanks to crop breeders like Norman Borlaug, the amount of cereals per capita has increased from about 600 pounds in 1968 to more than 840 pounds now.

A 2017 study calculated that food production will need to increase between 25 to 70 percent to meet global demand in 2050. If the current global rising trend in crop yields is simply maintained at 1.4 percent annually for the next 32 years, that implies a 56 percent increase by 2050. Breakthroughs like this will make achieving that goal even easier, and in the process will enable humanity to spare and restore more land to nature.

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  1. Oh, there will be forelock-tugging over this in about 10 – 9 – 8 – 7…..

    1. Yes, “Little Shop of Horrors” human-flesh-eating monster-plants will soon be on the loose!

      Hatten down the batches, bitches!

  2. They report that these engineered plants developed faster, grew taller, and produced about 40 percent more biomass, most of which was found in 50-percent-larger stems.

    Not to be too much of a downer, but this isn’t as groundbreaking as it seems and certainly isn’t the first time genetic engineers have tweaked the photocycle to great yields. Or, if it is as groundbreaking as it seems, they’ve done some good work to make it seem like it’s not.

    You can already produce corn, beans, wheat, and rice with more than 50% larger stems using conventional interbreeding methods and without changing the photocycle. The issue is that those crops, except maybe wheat, aren’t grown for their stems and saying you’ve increased the biomass 24% and that the increase is all in the stems is a bit disingenuous. Additionally, the crops where this would be really useful, such as canes and trees/lumber, the real advantage comes in the rate of growth to the same biomass rather than the absolute ceiling.

    What is interesting is that the specific pathways tweaked were susceptible to environmental stress. So, what the study is effectively saying is that even in stress conditions, basal biomass growth can readily exceed current yields.

    1. Not to say that it isn’t a breakthrough or scientific success. Just that it’s not the only one of it’s kind and that sometimes “scientists” say or pontificate about patently stupid shit and people buy into it.

    2. The issue is that those crops, except maybe wheat, aren’t grown for their stems

      Big news, for Big Celery!

    3. It’s no big deal that you can extend a car’s range by making a more efficient engine, because you can extend the range with a bigger fuel tank.

      Is that what you’re claiming?

      1. Is that what you’re claiming?

        Sort of. If range is the goal and the car’s range is limited by the payload and the more efficient engine doesn’t accelerate the payload as swiftly or propel it as fastly, then you can actually lose overall efficiency by going to the more internally efficient engine. Sure, you get more revolutions per gallon, but that’s not what gets the payload from A to B.

        Tobacco is a non-nutritive food crop. The vital portion of the crop is easily harvested itself and the essential chemicals readily isolated and quantified. They didn’t bother to do this. Instead, they point out that the total biomass was up and that the distinctly non-essential parts account for most of the increase, distinctly anti-efficiency from a production standpoint.

        We’ve already done this with tomatoes and it’s a big reason why heirlooms are becoming popular once again. A shining example of why progress for the sake of progress isn’t always different from abject stupidity.

      2. The more efficient engine intrinsically comes with a 50% larger engine compartment. A sleeker car with a less efficient engine can, will, and has beaten you on range and mpg without even touching the fuel tank.

  3. The researchers tested their hypotheses in tobacco

    Hopefully the Chinese will utilize this tech causing a reduction in the cost of nic juice for vapers.

  4. Oh great. Soon Earth will be transformed into Kashyyyk.

  5. Because higher temperatures result in less efficient photosynthesis and greater levels of photorespiration…

    Don’t give those polluting weeds a single photon until they clean up their act.

  6. Apply that to weed!

  7. Great science but, in order to profit by it, they will have to patent self-reproducing organisms. Patent rights, as with other intellectual property, pertain primarily to reproduction, or copying. As living organisms reproduce on their own, they should not be patentable.

    Why does it matter? Because farmers have been sued, or threatened with lawsuits by GMO companies when they find crop plants, on their land, that descend from patented GMO crops, regardless of how the plants get in their fields. It is possible that some of the farmers really steal GMO plants but the burden of proof should not be on the farmer, as it currently is.

    Property rights require responsibility of property’s owner to control the property. For example, if you drive your car off the road and crash it into someone or something, you will likely get a ticket for failing to control your vehicle. If GMO companies really claim ownership of GMO crops, it should be the GMO company’s responsibility – and not the farmers they accuse – to keep their GMO plants out of other farmers’ fields. A farmer, who doesn’t want GMO plants in his field, should not have expend any effort at all to keep GMO plants out.

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