The researchers found that plants modified to bypass photorespiration could increase their biomass by 40%. (Image credit: RIPE)
It’s common knowledge plants take sunlight and CO2 to make the energy they need to grow. A long time ago, the process of converting that energy was easy as there was more CO2 in the air, and thus plants flourished. As oxygen became the more dominant gas, plants figured out how to filter out oxygen molecules in favor carbon dioxide (known as photorespiration), and as a result, burn more energy while trying to make the energy they need to thrive. What this means, is that plants are not all that they could be regarding growth and yield potential.
To help plants achieve their full potential, researchers from the University of Illinois and the USDA Research Service have found a way to engineer them so that they can reject unnecessary oxygen molecules, which in turn, can increase their biomass by 40% in real world agronomic conditions.
The photosynthesis process uses an enzyme known as Rubisco (ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase-oxygenase) and sunlight to convert CO2 and water into sugars to fuel growth. It’s Rubisco’s job to grab that carbon dioxide from the air, however, since oxygen is so abundant, it catches 20% of those molecules as well, which creates a toxic compound that the plant must recycle using the process of photorespiration. The recycling process requires the plant to move that compound through three different compartments of a plants cell before they are clean enough, wasting a lot of energy in the process.
The researchers found that some plants, such as corn, have developed mechanisms that stop Rubisco from taking in oxygen molecules, and used that knowledge to engineer alternate pathways to scrub those toxic compounds, substantially shortening the trip through plant’s cells, saving the energy they would expend during regular scrubbing, and thus boosting the plant’s growth by 40%.
The researchers tested their hack on tobacco plants, which are easy to genetically engineer, easy to grow, and offer a leafy canopy similar to other crops. They found that those with the altered pathways offered better yields than those without the genetic alterations. They outlined the process in a recent paper published in Science. While this breakthrough will undoubtedly translate into increased food crops, it will take ten years before the engineering can be implemented as the FDA and USDA want to make sure that food is safe to eat.
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