1. Farm Mechanization

Scientists on mission to fasten Photosynthesis

KJ Staff
KJ Staff

Fertilisers, Pesticides, Herbicides are soon going to be the hacks of past, with scientists trying to bring in new technology which would re-define the meaning of photosynthesis and hence agriculture in whole. Experiments are being carried out so that the process of photosynthesis can be controlled and hence fastened so that more food can be produced in short span.

In an experiment to make the World more productive in terms of food, Scientists in central Illinois are seeding experimental plants. It will make the fiction real, since we will see plants growing at a faster pace, much faster than they  usually do. Experiments are ongoing on tobacco plant. These tobacco plants have been engineered at a more fundamental level than typical biotech crops. The way they conduct photosynthesis has been tinkered with so they convert sunlight and carbon dioxide more efficiently into carbohydrates. If scientists do that in food crops, any given plot of land could produce more food, or produce the same amount of food with less water and fertilizer.

 Agronomists have not yet pushed photosynthesis to its limits. That’s in spite of the fact that this 160-step biochemical process is very well studied, and surprisingly inefficient—plants convert less than 5 percent of the energy in sunlight into biomass. A still smaller part of that is invested in the parts of plants people like to eat: seeds, tubers, beans. Modern agriculture has improved yields tremendously thanks to fertilizers, pesticides, and traditional breeding. Now gains are harder to come by. That’s why the RIPE group is targeting inefficiencies in plant metabolism.

The population is growing in multiples. Thanks to the advancements in science. But can we manage to feed that big a population worldwide. It is said that by 2050 we would not double of what we produce now. The need is urgent. And that ambitious goal does not factor in the effects of climate change. Plants thrive on carbon dioxide, but very hot days suppress crop yields. In many parts of the world, the rising temperatures and increased droughts caused by climate change will be devastating. And those negative effects will have the biggest impact on the poor.

The RIPE project, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is starting with tobacco because it’s relatively easy to genetically engineer. But RIPE’s real aim is to improve the yields of food crops such as cassava and cowpeas, which are important sources of calories and protein in many poor countries. And it is working on much more ambitious changes to plant metabolism than have been made before.

 Last year, Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency (RIPE)  researchers demonstrated for the first time that it was possible to improve crop yields in the field by engineering photosynthesis. By increasing the expression levels of three genes involved in processing light, they improved tobacco yields by 20 percent. Now the RIPE team is trying to use the same genetic-engineering trick to increase yields in more recalcitrant food crops.

 Genetic engineering of photosynthesis in cassava is a delicate and lengthy process. De Souza opens a petri dish to show off cassava embryos, light-yellow clusters about a millimeter wide. She grows them using tissue plucked from a bud on a full-grown cassava plant. This cluster of cells, called a “callus,” can be infected with bacteria carrying the light-processing genes. Only a few cells will actually take up the genes. Those that do will then be exposed to a hormone cocktail that will drive them to grow a stem and roots.In cassava, this genetic transformation takes eight to 10 months that is, if everything goes well. Other key food crops, including rice and cowpeas, are a bit faster.

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