Scientists have made a breakthrough in a genetic approach that improves the ability of food crops to take advantage of the sun.
The researchers have developed a way to make photosynthesis – the natural process that all plants use to convert sunlight energy into food – more efficient.
The research team, which is spread across the UK and US, genetically altered soybean plants and achieved a 20% higher crop yield.
They hope this advance will help alleviate food shortages.
Lead researcher Stephen Long, an agricultural scientist based at the University of Illinois and Lancaster University, said this was “the most important advance” he has been involved in during his long career.
“We’ve been looking at photosynthesis and why it can be inefficient for 30 years,” he told BBC News. “There was a lot of skepticism that we could improve it, so showing that we can do that completely changes the terrain and contributes enormously to our ability to increase the global food supply.”
Directly or indirectly, all our food comes from photosynthesis. It is a multi-stage chemical process that uses the energy of sunlight to turn carbon dioxide and water into sugars that fuel a plant’s growth.
These scientists addressed a small but critical part of this process: in very strong sunlight, plants switch into a protective mode and release excess energy as heat to prevent damage to their cells. But it takes several minutes for a plant to come out of “protection mode” and back into “fully productive growth mode”.
In their genetic approach, these scientists from the University of Illinois and Lancaster tweaked the genes responsible for this protective function and made their experimental soybean plants “come back” faster. The leaves of these genetically modified plants gained more photosynthesis time, which increased the total crop yield by 20%.
Previous studies involving tobacco plants were carried out under laboratory conditions. This is the first to be successfully replicated in the field.
“It’s so important, with any new technology, that you test it in a real farming situation to see if there’s a good chance that it will work for farmers,” said Professor Long.
“This jump in yield is huge compared to the improvements we get through plant breeding,” he added. “And the process that we’ve addressed is universal, so the fact that it works on a food crop gives us a lot of confidence that it should work on wheat, corn and rice.”
Prof Long said these crops could be growing in the field within 10 years.
Rules on growing genetically modified crops vary from country to country. The UK government announced last year that it would relax regulation of “gene-edited” crops – to allow them to be grown commercially in England.
But these scientists hope their breakthrough will help some of the world’s poorest farmers. Dr Amanda De Souza, also from the University of Illinois and lead author of the study, said: change trajectory.”
According to UNICEF, by 2030, more than 660 million people are expected to face food shortages and malnutrition. The main causes of this are harsher growing conditions caused by climate change and inefficiencies in food supply chains.
Dr De Souza said, “Improving photosynthesis is a great opportunity to get the needed jump in yields.”