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New photosynthesis institute in Wageningen

By 2050, there will be nearly 10 billion mouths to feed worldwide. That is two billion more than now. This explosive population growth, along with climate change and biodiversity loss, is putting food security under pressure. One potential solution could be to improve photosynthesis in crops. At the new, independent Jan IngenHousz Institute in Wageningen, plant scientists from a range of disciplines are therefore attempting to unpick the secret of photosynthesis efficiency.

“Without photosynthesis there is no life,” explains Professor Martin Kropff, chairman of the Jan IngenHousz Institute Supervisory Board and former rector magnificus of Wageningen University & Research. “During photosynthesis, plants convert CO2 and water into oxygen and sugars under the influence of light. It is the basis of all the compounds plants are made up of.” For years, plant scientists around the world have been trying to find out how plants can make more efficient use of sunlight for growth. If they succeed, this could vastly improve crop yields.

“Plants usually only use a small percentage of the solar energy they absorb,” says David Kramer, director of the Jan IngenHousz Institute, which officially opened for business on 1 October. “Different processes in the plant limit photosynthesis under different conditions, and each of these processes is controlled by different sets of genes. All these processes react second by second to fluctuations in light, temperature, humidity, wind, nutrients and other environmental factors. And these effects can all differ from one crop to the next.”

The real world as a laboratory
Researchers want to find out which process limits photosynthesis in different crops in real-world situations. According to Kramer, this is a huge challenge that is difficult to achieve with traditional scientific lab-based approaches. “Instead, we will need to use the real world as a laboratory. One of the first essential steps is to develop advanced photosynthesis sensors and data science tools. They can continuously record in great detail how photosynthesis responds to changes in conditions in many thousands of plants. We can then use this data to determine what processes are limiting factors under specific conditions.”

Along the way, the Jan IngenHousz Institute expects to discover fundamentally new science about photosynthesis and how it works in the real world. “We will be able to tell from that whether changes in specific genes are likely to improve performance. Then we will need to take both the knowledge and the sensors to large numbers of plant breeders and engineers all over the world to record useful changes in crops.”

Scientific platform
According to Kramer, the problem is too large to be solved by one laboratory. “We will have to enable a lot of other people working in different disciplines and with different crops to take part. So we are building an open scientific platform that is accessible to a community of hundreds of research groups all over the world.” The platform will enable this wide-ranging community to measure photosynthesis in many crops in new ways.

David Kramer and Martin Kropff are looking ahead to the future with confidence. If plants convert just a little more sunlight into sugars, this will have a huge impact on food production. Kropff: “We think it is achievable. This would be good news for the Global South.” Kramer adds: “The overarching aim is to enable breeders to breed plants that produce more food whilst being more resistant to climate change, without a disproportionate need for water or fertilizers.”


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