Scientists hacked photosynthesis and increased plant productivity by 40%

A group of researchers from the University of Illinois have taken the first successful step towards solving the problem of photorespiration in food crops. The phenomenon, which is considered a mistake in evolution, was partially defeated by genetic engineering. In the long term, this promises an increase in the yield of rice, wheat and soybeans by 40%, and the threat of world hunger will be postponed for decades.

Scientists learned about the problem of photorespiration a century ago, with an in-depth study of photosynthesis. This process is extremely complex, with many chemical reactions, and at the most key stage, the enzyme ribulose-1, 5-bisphosphate-carboxylase-oxygenase (RuBisCo) comes into play. Its duty is to integrate a carbon dioxide molecule into the ribulose-1, 5-bisphosphate compound, however, due to oxygenase activity, the enzyme confuses it with an oxygen molecule in about 20% of the cases.

In such cases, a local failure or error occurs in photosynthesis. First, instead of absorbing carbon dioxide with the release of oxygen, the opposite happens. Secondly, toxic ammonia and glycolate are formed, and the plant is forced to launch processes to remove these substances, and the previously accumulated energy is spent on this. From the point of view of economic application, this is an unacceptable waste of time and resources, but for evolution and 80% success is a very good indicator.

Scientists at the University of Illinois have conducted 17 major studies trying to modify crop genotypes using gene fragments from different types of life on earth that use photosynthesis. The best performance was achieved with the genes of E. coli and green algae - the metabolism of the experimental GMO plants improved by 40% or more. In the long term, this promises an equivalent increase in yield, and with it a manifold increase in food supplies for earthlings while maintaining the same size of fields and the cost of processing them, which is today.