If Regulators Allow, Improved Photosynthesis Can Feed More of the Poor Using Less Land

(p. A13) For decades, scientists have pursued a tantalizing possibility for bolstering food supplies and easing hunger for the world’s poorest: improving photosynthesis, the biological process in plants that sustains nearly all life on Earth.

Now, researchers say that by using genetic modifications to increase the efficiency of photosynthesis, they significantly increased yields in a food crop, soybeans, providing a glimmer of potential that such methods could someday put more food on tables as climate change and other threats make it harder for vulnerable populations across the globe to feed their families.

. . .  Their methods will also have to pass muster with government regulators before crops transformed this way will ever reach farmers’ fields.

. . .

Without major changes to agriculture, governments’ targets for mitigating climate change are at risk, scientists warn. Yet addressing malnutrition and hunger in the short term might require pressing more land and other resources into service, which could accentuate warming.

That is why scientific advancements that could help us produce more nourishment without using more land, whether by improving photosynthesis or otherwise, hold such promise.

. . .

The new research in Illinois focuses on “non-photochemical quenching,” a mechanism in plants that protects them from sun damage. When plants are in bright sunlight, they often receive more light energy than they can use for photosynthesis. This mechanism helps them shed the excess energy harmlessly as heat. But after the plant is shaded again, it doesn’t stop very quickly, which means the plant wastes precious time and energy that could be put toward producing carbohydrates.

The researchers’ genetic transformations help plants adjust more quickly to shade. In multilayered plants like rice, wheat, maize and soy, this extra nimbleness could theoretically increase photosynthesis in the middle layers of leaves, which are constantly flitting between sunlight and shadow during the day.

For the full story, see:

Raymond Zhong and Clare Toeniskoetter. “Researchers Alter Genes To Refine Photosynthesis And Improve Crop’s Yield.” The New York Times (Friday, August 19, 2022): A13.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Aug. 18, 2022, and has the title “Scientists Boost Crop Performance by Engineering a Better Leaf.”)

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