Scientists in America, backed by the UK government, have engineered plants able to grow 40 per cent larger by creating a more efficient growth process.
Researchers at the University of Illinois and US Department of Agriculture revealed they had restructured plants with a “photorespiratory shortcut”, meaning less wasted energy that allows them to grow more.
The landmark study is part of the Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency project, (RIPE) an international research project that is engineering crops to photosynthesize more efficiently to sustainably increase worldwide food productivity with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the U.K. Government’s Department for International Development (DFID).
Scientists found that over two years of replicated field studies, their engineered plants developed faster, grew taller and produced 40 per cent more biomass, most of which came from their 50 per cent larger stems.
“We could feed up to 200 million additional people with the calories lost to photorespiration in the Midwestern U.S. each year,” said principal investigator Donald Ort, Robert Emerson professor of plant science and crop sciences.
He added: “Reclaiming even a portion of these calories across the world would go a long way to meeting the 21st Century’s rapidly expanding food demands, driven by population growth and more affluent high-calorie diets.”
The process of photorespiration in plants is described as a genetic “glitch” in plants, which inhibits their development by accidentally converting oxygen, rather than carbon dioxide, leaving a toxic residue that needs to be recycled.
“Photorespiration is anti-photosynthesis,” said lead author Paul South, a research molecular biologist with the Agricultural Research Service, who works on the RIPE project at Illinois. “It costs the plant precious energy and resources that it could have invested in photosynthesis to produce more growth and yield.”
According to the study, photorespiration normally takes a complicated route through three compartments in the plant cell. The US team engineered alternate pathways to reroute the process, drastically shortening the trip and saving enough resources to boost plant growth by 40 per cent.
It’s the first time that an engineered photorespiration fix has been tested in real-world agronomic conditions, having been trialled on a tobacco plant. The team now plan to test their work on tomato, potato and aubergine plants, among other crops.
The study estimates it will take more than a decade to be rolled out commercially, but added they were committed to providing smallholder farms, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia with royalty-free access to their breakthroughs.