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Scientific breakthrough makes crops 20% more efficient at photosynthesis

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3 min read
AUTHOR: Molly Long
close up of a furry green soybean plant

Researchers working in the US and UK have developed a way to improve food crops’ ability to draw energy from the sun.

Photosynthesis – the process by which plants convert sunlight into food – is something scientists at the University of Illinois in the US and the University of Lancaster in the UK have been studying for 30 years.

Scientists achieved a 20% greater crop yield in soybean plants by genetically altering them. The technology of gene editing has been a hot topic in the food industry as of late, following the UK Government’s recent legislation to relax laws relating to the practice which were inherited from the EU.

The focus of the gene editing was on a small but important process which sees soybean plants switch into a ‘protective’ mode in very bright sunlight. Plants do this so as not to damage their cells.

It takes several minutes to switch between protective mode and ‘growth’ mode. The delay means fewer minutes spent growing, and over the course of a plant’s growth cycle this can add up and result in a smaller yield.

To tackle this, scientists tweaked the genes to make the process of switching between protective and growth mode quicker. The same process had previously been tested successfully in tobacco plants – however this was in lab conditions.

The Illinois and Lancaster experiment marks the first time such results have been achieved in the field. “It’s so important, with any new technology, that you trial it in a real agricultural situation to see if there is a good chance that this will work for farmers,” Lead Researcher Professor Stephen Long told BBC News.

By making plants, specifically crops used for food, more efficient at photosynthesising, farmers can harvest greater yields. The aim, according to the cross-Atlantic team, is for the breakthrough to help alleviate food scarcity and bolster food security.

Soy is among the most widely grown crops in the world, and is utilised not just for direct human consumption, but also for animal feed.

However, it is also considered a damaging crop when the proper safeguards are not in place. Soybean farming routinely contributes to deforestation and requires considerable chemical interventions like fertilisers, herbicides, and pesticides. By employing the technology developed here, in theory less space would be required to yield more of the crop.

The breakthrough from Professor Long’s team could also be significant beyond soybean. “The process we’ve tackled is universal, so the fact we have it working in a food crop gives us a lot of confidence that this should work in wheat, maize and rice,” he said.

The scientist said soybean crops subject to gene editing in this way could be growing in the field within 10 years.

Find out more about why gene editing is pulling the focus of the food industry in this Food Matters Live Podcast:

Are consumers ready for gene-edited crops?

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