Scientists have established a natural flaw in photosynthesis and, as a result, have increased plant productivity by an incredible 40% compared to wild relatives.
Photosynthesis is the chemical reaction that allows plants to turn sunlight and carbon dioxide into food, and this new hack could lead to enough calories to help feed another 200 million people on our planet, from the same volume of cultures.
From now on, the remedy was applied only to tobacco plants, so we are far from using this to stimulate food supply. But it is an incredibly promising first step.
So what is this "problem" that needs to be solved? It's a little known step in photosynthesis known as photo respiration.
"We could feed up to 200 million people with calories lost in photojournalism in the Midwestern States each year," says lead researcher Donald Ort of the University of Illinois Carl R. Woese, Institute of Genomic Biology.
"Recovering even a portion of these calories around the world would be a long way to meet the demand for fast-growing foods in the 21st century."
In order to understand what is happening, you need to understand a little about the evolution process by chance. In the immortal words of Dr. Ian Malcolm in the classic SF Jurassic Park, "Life Finds a Way". What he did not say is sometimes that it is an inefficient mess.
To be fair, evolution does what it can in these circumstances. As a grade student who keeps an eye on the summer break, it is enough to pass. Anything else is a scattered effort, after all.
For many plants, including rice and soybean, when it comes to photosynthesis, it's an empty passage. We're talking about a C-.
One of the worst parts is a key step involving the ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase oxygenase (RuBisCO) enzyme, which carbs carbon dioxide on ribulose 1,5-bisphosphate (RuBP).
About 20% of the time, RuBisCO erodes oxygen for the very important carbon dioxide molecule (Fun Faber: RuBisCO is widely regarded as the most abundant protein on the planet)
Not only is it a scattered opportunity, the result of this glitch reaction is glycolat and ammonia – two toxic compounds that need to be addressed quickly before causing too much damage.
Fortunately, the plants have evolved in a way to get rid of this poison, called photo respiration. They are not going to spend some of their energy on this vital recycling process if it helps them to survive.
But when it comes to growing them as a source of food, we certainly do.
"It costs the energy and precious resources for plants that they could have invested in photosynthesis to produce more growth and yield," says lead author and molecular biologist Paul Ju with the Department of Agriculture of the US Department of Agriculture.
Rice, wheat and soybeans all suffer from this need to eliminate toxic accumulation. Not only do they happen to be three of the four cultures that the world's population uses for most of our calories, we can expect their yield to fall in the future due to global warming.
"RuBisCO has more problems choosing carbon dioxide from oxygen because it gets hotter, causing more breathing," says co-author Amanda Cavanagh of the University of Illinois.
Over the years, numerous efforts have been made to find ways to force crop plants to avoid the need for detoxification.
Many involved finding the most effective photo-respiration approaches taken by other organisms, including various algae and bacteria.
This last effort is called Creating Increased Photosynthetic Efficacy (RIPE), and its approach was to select genes from other parts and test them.
A hand came from the bacterium E. coli the pathway of oxidation of glycol. A second version used a catalase gene as well It's coli, and others for a glycol oxidase and plant malate synthase.
Topic no. 3 used a malate synthase plant gene and a green algae gene for glycolate dehydrogenase.
These have been used along with other genetic tricks to find the most efficient energy path between 17 different constructions.
The third way of breathing was the one that came out of the rest of the final results, with metabolic activity rising by over 40% compared with the witnesses. This gained energy translates into higher yields.
It remains to be seen if the same efficiency improvements will be translated into other cultures, but researchers are working on it.
Life does not always find a way. But if we want to eat where it is needed in the future, science will have to do it.
This research was published in Science.