Scientists fixed a natural flaw in photosynthesis, and as a result, they increased plant productivity by an incredible 40 percent compared to wild relatives.
Photosynthesis is a chemical reaction that allows plants to convert sunlight and carbon dioxide into food, and this new breakthrough can result in enough calories to help feed another 200 millions of euros people on our planet, of the same volume of cultures.
Since now, the fix has been applied only to tobacco plants, so we are far from using this to increase our food supply. But it is an incredibly promising first step.
So, what is this "problem" that should have been corrected? It's a little-known step in photosynthesis known as photoresure.
"We can feed up to 200 million additional people with calories lost in photo-resorption in the United States in the Midwest every year," says lead researcher Donald Ort from the University of Illinois, Karl R. Wooze, Institute of Genomic Biology.
"Withdrawing even some of these calories around the world will go a long way towards meeting the rapid expansion of 21st century food requirements."
To understand what is wrong, you need to understand a bit about a random process of evolution. In the immortal words of Dr. Ian Malcolm in the science fiction classic The Jurassic Park, "Life finds a way". What he did not say is sometimes that way is an ineffective hot mess.
To be fair, evolution is doing what is possible under the circumstances. As a student of a city that holds an eye on a summer vacation, it does just enough to pass. Another thing is a worsening effort, after all.
For many plants, including rice and soy, when it comes to photosynthesis, it's a bare pass. We are talking about frightening C-.
One of the most complex parts is a key step involving the enzyme ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase-oxygenase (RuBisCO), which clinically carbon dioxide on the ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate compound (RuBP).
About 20 percent of the time, RuBisCO owes oxygen to all important carbon dioxide molecules (Fun Fact: RuBisCO is considered the most abundant protein on the planet)
Not only is this a consumable option, the result of this reaction is glycolate and ammonia – two toxic compounds that need to be quickly solved before they cause a lot of damage.
Luckily the plants developed a way to get rid of this poison, called photoresure. They do not mind spending some of their energy on this vital recycling process if they help them survive.
But when it comes to cultivating them as a source of food, we surely do it.
"The cost of the plant is precious energy and resources that can put them in photosynthesis to create greater growth and yield," said lead author and molecular biologist Paul South, with the US Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research.
Rice, wheat and soybean all suffer from this need to clear the toxic amount. Not only did it happen to be three of the four crops in which our population relies on most calories, we can expect their yield to decline in the future thanks to global warming.
"RuBisCO has even greater problems with choosing carbon dioxide than oxygen, because it gets hotter, causing more photorescence," says co-author Amanda Kavana of the University of Illinois.
There have been numerous efforts over the years to find ways to force plants to avoid the need for detoxification.
Many have been involved in finding the most effective approaches for photo-resorption taken from other organisms, including different algae and bacteria.
This latest attempt is called Realization of Increased Photosynthesis Efficiency (RIPE), and its approach was to choose genes from elsewhere and to test.
Several came from the bacteria E. coli is glycolate oxidation pathway. The second version also used a catalase gene as well Escherichia coli, and some for glycolate oxidase and small plant synthase.
Subject number three uses a gene for plant malate synthases and a green algal glycollate dehydrogenase gene.
These were used in combination with other genetic changes to find the most efficient energy path between 17 different constructs.
The third time in photo-trapping was the one that stood out from the others in the final results, with metabolic activity increasing by more than 40 per cent compared to controls. This energy obtained turns into larger yields.
It remains to be seen whether the same efficiency improvements will be translated into other cultures, but researchers work on it.
Life does not always find a way. But if we want to eat where needed in the future, science will have to.
This study was published in Science.