As the world’s population continues to increase, the United Nations has estimated that the amount of crops that are currently produced will be insufficient to meet the associated rising food demand. The organization has also speculated that by 2050, many of the world’s poorest nations will be unable to feed the majority of their citizens. A collaboration between scientists at The University of Illinois and The University of California, Berkeley, has shown that it may be possible to create plants that will produce a greater output, and help feed these populations. The researchers genetically modified organisms to improve the rate at which they photosynthesize, reducing their recovery time and increasing their yield.
Photosynthesis is the method by which plants use carbon dioxide and sunlight to produce sugars and oxygen. Like animals, they are susceptible to sun damage but are able to shield themselves using a process known as nonphotochemical quenching (NPQ). After ideal conditions for photosynthesis resume, these plants can take up to 1/2 an hour to relax the NPQ process. During this period, light energy is lost as heat. Depending on the temperature and the type of plant, this may result in a decrease in productivity by up to 30%. The researchers aimed to devise a method which would cause the plants to reduce the amount of time taken to relax NPQ and, therefore, increase their efficiency.
The team were able to identify three proteins that are responsible for stopping NPQ. They speculated that plants with increased numbers of these proteins would be able to relax the process faster. The theory was tested using tobacco, because of the ease with which these plants are transformed and their ability to produce the layers of leaves necessary. Those that had additional proteins added weighed between 14% and 20% more than other tobacco plants. Many crops such as rice, soybeans and wheat, also produce layers. This suggests that the same method can be applied to these foods, increasing their yield. Even though the crops would be more difficult to modify, researchers are confident that this next step in the experiment can be achieved fairly quickly.
Once it has accomplished, both lab tests and field experiments will need to be performed to determine how the modified plants will respond to stresses, such as droughts and floods. After this the technology will be ready for use on a large scale basis and may be given to farmers, and other agricultural producers. Researchers not associated with the experiment also believe that this modification may be the beginning of the second ‘green revolution,’ and would significantly reduce world hunger.