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Scientists Modify Plant Genes to Improve Photosynthesis, Crop Productivity by 20 Percent

Nov 19, 2016 04:34 PM EST
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A team of scientists from the University of Illinois has devised a revolutionary way of boosting crop yield of tobacco plants by 20 percent by adjusting their genetic makeup.

The study, published in the journal Science, says that by boosting the levels of three proteins that are connected to photosynthesis, crop yield could increase. During the tests, researchers used tobacco plants because it can be tweaked easily. The tobacco plants in the study achieved a 14 to 20 percent boost in crop productivity.

The team is particularly focused on the plants' nonphotochemical quenching (NPQ), a process where excess light absorbed by the leaves is released as heat energy.

"Crop leaves exposed to full sunlight absorb more light than they can use. If they can't get rid of this extra energy, it will actually bleach the leaf," Stephen Long, lead author of the study, said via Phys.org. "But when a cloud crosses the sun, or a leaf goes into the shade of another, it can take up to half an hour for that NPQ process to relax. In the shade, the lack of light limits photosynthesis, and NPQ is also wasting light as heat."

Using a supercomputer at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, Long and his team discovered that during NPQ, the plant's ability to yield more crops reduces by 7.5 percent to 30 percent, depending on plant type and temperature.

To address the problem, the researchers said that the plants might recover faster from NPQ if the three photosynthesis-related proteins will be boosted. To test their theory, the researchers inserted the three genes into a tobacco plant type called Arabidopsis. The seedlings grown from the said plant were tested through a fluorescence imaging technique, determining which of the plants have a shorter recovery time from changes in available light.

Results showed that two of the plants had a 20 percent boost in productivity while the remaining tobacco plant had a 14 percent productivity increase.

"Tobacco is grown for its leaves, which were substantially increased. But in food crops, it will be whatever we eat from the plant -- the fruit, the seeds or the roots -- that we will need to increase," Johannes Kromdijk, one of the study's authors, said.

"That's pretty amazing. If this could be put into all of our food and feed and fuel crops, then it would solve certainly a decade or more’s worth of our need for these agricultural products," UCLA biochemist Sabeeha Merchant, who wasn’t involved with the study, told LA Times.

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