The turbo-charged plants that could boost farm output

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, almost three in ten people around the world went short of food in 2022, with more than a tenth severely food insecure. Improving plant yields is one way to cut the shortfall, and there have been great advances. But while maize yields, for example, have tripled over the past hundred years, so has water usage.

"We need to be able to increase productivity without increasing further demand, particularly in terms of water," says Prof Steve Long of the University of Illinois. One aspect of plant growth that hasn't seen significant improvement is conversion efficiency - how effectively a plant converts solar radiation to biomass through photosynthesis.

Prof Long says that photosynthesis in current varieties of crops, like wheat and soybeans, has barely improved in decades. He is the principal investigator and director of a project called Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency (Ripe), which aims to genetically tweak plants to increase their yields by improving their ability to photosynthesize.

The efficiency of photosynthesis in crop plants is well below the theoretical maximum but has been hard to influence thanks to the complex nature of the process - there are more than 100 steps coded for by even more genes, giving millions of potential permutations.


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