Scientists have “hacked” photosynthesis, and it could help them speed up food production

Sep 22, 2014

By Fiona MacDonald

Photosynthesis is the crucial process by which plants convert sunlight, water and air into energy and food – and scientists from the US and UK have now taken the first step towards speeding the process up using enzymes from blue-green algae.

This is an important breakthrough that could lead to new ways to feed the world’s growing population. “Hearing the results of this experiment for the first time was definitely one of those ‘Eureka!’ moments you live for as a scientist,” Maureen Hanson, a plant geneticist at Cornell University in the US who led the research, told William Herkewitz for Popular Mechanics.

For decades scientists have seen room for improvement in the photosynthesis process – mainly in the activity of an enzyme called Rubisco. Rubisco is the protein that converts CO2 into sugar, and is possibly the most abundant protein on Earth, accounting for up to half of all the soluble protein found in leaves.

But the reason it’s so common is because it’s not very efficient – and researchers have long been searching for a way to boost its output. Scientists estimate “that tinkering with Rubisco and ways to boost the concentration of carbon dioxide around it could generate up to a 60 percent increase in the yields of crops such as rice and wheat,” writes Heidi Ledford for Nature. This would also reduce fertiliser needs and help free up agricultural land. However, up until now there hasn’t been much success in attempts to manipulate Rubisco.

27 comments on “Scientists have “hacked” photosynthesis, and it could help them speed up food production

  • Does this change the bio-fuel argument? What about meat production and land use if grasses grow better? What of bio-plastics, free from some (silly) GMO concerns?

    Could we get to better agro-forestry and lower housing costs? Cheaper cotton? Lifting Photosynthetic efficiency from 1% to 1.6% (or whatever) is a big deal. What if we cracked 5%?

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  • Yes, indeed it does alter the cost/benefit component of the bio-fuel equation . If they can increase the photosynthetic potential of a crop like sugarcane or corn, from which most bio-fuel (ethanol) is made, without an increase in the amount of fuel/energy consumed in the cultivation, harvesting, fermenting, etc., we can substantially reduce the CO2 per unit of fuel produced, making for a more efficient and environmentally sound process.

    Anything and everything that has plant material involved at some point in its production process, (so almost everything we do/produce/manufacture) would become cheaper and greener.

    Now I’m waiting for/dreading the inevitable knee-jerk Luddite hysteria from Greenpeace and their fellow hippie travelers.

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  • phil rimmer Sep 22, 2014 at 1:29 pm

    Does this change the bio-fuel argument?

    Bio-fuel essentially recycles CO2 via phtosythesis. It is the fuel v food/energy consumption for a human population explosion which makes demands on land.

    What about meat production and land use if grasses grow better?

    Meat has about 90% energy loss at each step in the food chain.

    What of bio-plastics,

    I would have thought that plastics and carbon fibres , nano tubes etc. were a good use for fossil carbon!

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  • Negasta Sep 22, 2014 at 1:51 pm

    Yes, indeed it does alter the cost/benefit component of the bio-fuel equation .

    While beneficial for atmospheric CO2 balance, bio-fuel competes with food production taking up land from food crops or wildlife.

    I think hydrogen fuel produced from water using tidal, wind, geothermal, solar, or Thorium Nuclear power, is a greener option.

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  • Another aspect in addition to genetically modifying the protein, would be to use diatoms capacity to optically improve the capture of sunlight.

    And an Oregon State University researcher discovered that the silcon shells from dead diatoms actually boosted solar cell panel efficiency by creating a scaffold that made absorbed light dance around. By momentarily capturing light and generating a little heat the diatom-enhanced solar panels could become about three times as efficient.

    The diatoms can be trained to secrete oil for biofuel but also produce higher-value products at the same time — like glucosamine, a health food supplement — which allows the entire production cycle to be profitable.

    According to a statement from OSU last fall, “In theory, and possibly soon in practice, these amazing microscopic algae will be able to take some of the cheapest, most abundant materials on Earth – like silicon and nitrates – and add nothing much more than sunshine, almost any type of water, and carbon dioxide to produce a steady stream of affordable products.”

    By using sand, fertilizer, a little sun and saltwater we might some day power the world’s automobiles and provide materials for electronics. At least that is the promise of a photosynthetic biorefinery.

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  • I think in all instances the point is that yield per acre is one of the bottle necks. Dropping the impact on acreage drops costs. Bio plastics are a big thing with me. PLA is something I would like to see more of as a feedstock for eco-3D printing for everything. Lets leave as much fossil carbon as undisturbed as possible. If we can rehabilitate short term capture we might be able to do something quite fast to get CO2 under control, though we could get a little cheesed off at all the bamboo furniture. It might go. Grow bamboo. Make everything out of it and polylactic acid to join things together then burn it as fuel when we’re sick of it.

    I’m particularly interested in High intensity horticulture within cities using non-green LEDs and Hydro/Aeroponics to minimise energy and water usage and no pesticides and tiny transport costs. This increased photosynthetic efficacy could be awesome…

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  • The point is how we co-opt the sunlight falling on our planet. We can’t cover it in silicon, but we can get twice the sugars out of it. It might be that. This is a grasses technology. Sugar cane might become particularly advantageous with this level of lift. Our old paradigms may shift a little with the new sums…

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  • If we could increase the Photosynthetic Potential to the best case scenario, namely 60%, we could be able to grow enough for us to eat and to make bio-fuels.

    I know the 60% figure is wildly optimistic, but even I, cynic & pessimist that I am, need something to make me feel hopeful on occasion.

    Also, this modification to the plant/feedstock, could be paired with genetically modified yeasts and/or bacteria that have been engineered to produce ethanol, methanol, etc. much more efficiently than the strains currently in use.

    Vertical farms could also (at least partially) solve the food/fuel competition for growing space.

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  • ” At the moment the algal Rubisco, while more efficient, can waste energy by reacting with oxygen rather than CO2. Currently the scientists are overcoming this by growing the plants in chambers that maintain artificially high CO2 levels, but that’s obviously not a long-term solution.
    Usually the blue-green algae overcome this problem by creating structures called carboxysomes around their Rubisco enzymes, creating a CO2-rich environment, but obviously this isn’t something that occurs naturally in tobacco plants.
    But there is hope – in June, the team reported that they’d engineered tobacco plants that could generate carboxysome-like structures. So the next step is to try to engineer the algal Rubisco enzyme into these plants to see if this helps to make them more efficient. ”

    Killing the photorespiration birds, the natural and the engineering birds, with one carboxysome stone.

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  • 11
    dbl_blnd says:

    I’m certainly no evolutionary biologist, but it seems plausible that the reason why nature didn’t create this more efficient solution in plants through gene transfer is that both conditions, more effective rubisco and prevention of O2 access, had to be met at once. This is hard to overcome in slow-reproducing life forms.

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  • Hi Phil,

    I toured the local sewage plant some years ago. Apart from regretting the potential to generate enormous amounts of natural gas, I noted that an awful lot of physical waste was produced which was shipped off as soil improver. It struck me that this is an excellent opportunity to sequester carbon into the soil. Bioplastics like PLA do a similar thing, Given that this could be done presumably in tanks on land otherwise unsuitable for agriculture this strikes me as a win, win, win. Depending on what else you need to feed it other than sunlight and co2. Perhaps these plants should be situated next to C02 producing factories.

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  • Neodarwinian Sep 22, 2014 at 3:43 pm

    ” At the moment the algal Rubisco, while more efficient, can waste energy by reacting with oxygen rather than CO2. Currently the scientists are overcoming this by growing the plants in chambers that maintain artificially high CO2 levels, but that’s obviously not a long-term solution.

    This could be interesting in hydroponics on a Mars base! – With an enclosed atmosphere produced by using a compressor!

    There could also be reflectors, fibre optics etc. to increase light levels in insulated undersground chambers – avoiding surface radiation.

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  • @ Negasta

    Your crap cheap shot at Greenpeace “Luddites” is just as hysterically knee jerk.
    If it hadn’t been for the environmental conservation groups you are targeting, we wouldn’t be nearly as aware of the urgency needed to make these processes more efficient.

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  • Does this change the bio-fuel argument?

    Sadly no. This is a pure puff piece article with lots and lots of speculation and very little actual science.

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  • As a former Greenpeace supporter I now rather side with Negasta on this view. The great blemish on Greenpeace is the natural-is-best contingent, mostly coincident with those opposed to anything with the term radiation applied.

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  • But I am opposed to Uranium fission development and use with any available or mooted technology. I have long argued against the insane risk of losing chunks of geography for the foreseeable future to occasionable accidents. This is not what we should be bequeathing our kids.

    But radiation phobics will yet hamper other fission technologies that may solve these problems and even clear up legacy ones. Greenpeace has a party line that moves too slowly for the advancing technology it is supposed to be knowledgeable about.

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  • @phil rimmer

    Seems to be no “Reply” button under your last Greenpeace/nuclear post, so I’m replying to it here.

    Greenpeace means the Precautionary Principle in action. They may have screwed up a few times here and there because that’s the nature of often dangerous, frontline activism against rampant, violent exploitation of the planet. True, they may not be fully knowledgeable about the latest fission technology but they choose to be and are knowledgeable about the latest technology that uses the most powerful, least risky and accessible radiation available to us … solar radiation, technology which is becoming more viable by the day as this “hacking photosynthsis” article and our earlier posts indicate, in large part thanks to Greenpeace efforts to consistently and positively promote it.

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  • I work in eco-tech. I am hugely pro renewable energy. My future depends on it. But the no-noes of yesterday, like no to bio-fuel because it steals from food production are always worthy of re-examination in the light of new possibilities.

    Greenpeace is ideological in a manner that rather leads it to policy-based evidence-making. Its treatment of Thorium is a case in point. Renewables as currently constituted needs power to cover dull, still days and no good efficient mass storage schemes yet do the job. International HVDC links help considerably but the problem is now and we would do well to back a number of schemes. Thorium is one such with a starting radiotoxicity of less than one fifth of Uranium. Designs are proposed for inherently safe small CHP units offering stunning overall energy efficiencies. Whilst I would like zero risk, I would also like Germany to stop using ever more brown coal as it shuts its nuclear plants. Greenpeace demands we don’t even bother to look at developing thorium.

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