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.