New Biotech Photosynthesis Hacks Would Boost Crop Yields by 50 Percent or More

Growing more food on less acreage means more land for nature.


A team of biotechnologists at the University of Essex has been tweaking the process of photosynthesis—the system by which plants use sunlight to transform water and carbon dioxide into food. In a study for the journal Nature Plants, they describe how they've improved the energy efficiency of crop plants by inserting cellular machinery from algae. They've also boosted the production of an enzyme that makes it easier for carbon dioxide to be transformed into sugars. When combined, these two alterations have increased crop productivity by 52 percent in the greenhouse and by 27 percent in field trials.

This research is part of Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency (RIPE), an international research project. In 2016, RIPE researchers sped up plant adaptation to changes in sunlight in ways that could increase crop productivity by 20 percent. In a 2019 study, biotechnologists reported a way to increase the efficiency of the processes through which plants deal with some of the toxic byproducts of photosynthesis; in field trials, this increased yields by 20 to 40 percent.

"Our modeling suggests that stacking this [new] breakthrough with two previous discoveries from the RIPE project could result in additive yield gains totaling as much as 50 to 60 percent in food crops," said RIPE Director Stephen Long in a press release.

According to some estimates, the world's farmers will have to produce 60 percent more food to feed the world's projected population of 9 billion people by 2050. Innovations like this are bringing us steadily closer to that goal.