Scientists have figured out a way to make photosynthesis more efficient. The team used bioengineering to modify tobacco plants. The plants became significantly more productive and the findings may lead to better crop yields in the future. The details are in a paper that was just published in the journal Science.
When plants are exposed to more sunlight than they can safely convert into food, a process called nonphotochemical quenching protects the leaves from damage. The plant leaves begin to convert the excess energy into heat. The problem is that once this mechanism activates, it stays active for a long time. Even after the plant is shaded again, it can take 30 minutes or longer for photosynthesis processes to return to normal. Depending on the type of plant and weather conditions, this can reduce efficiency by up to 30%. If crops could be modified to speed up the transition from nonphotochemical quenching to regular photosynthesis, it would improve yields.
A team of researchers led by a scientist from the University of Illinois studied possible ways to speed up plants’ adaptations to changing light conditions. The team modified the genes of tobacco plants to increase the levels of proteins that help deactivate nonphotochemical quenching once plants are shaded. Several methods were tested and the seedlings were analyzed using fluorescence imaging techniques. This allowed the researchers to see which seedlings were quickly transitioning to normal photosynthesis. The team also recorded growth rates. Some of these new modified plant lines showed an increase in productivity of up to 20%. This is enough to significantly increase crop yields.
The team’s findings could lead to the development of modified food crops that photosynthesize more efficiently. By adding genes that result in extra proteins, the plants can quickly transition from nonphotochemical quenching to regular photosynthesis. This has the potential to reduce food shortages by increasing food crop yields.
Kromdijk et al. Improving photosynthesis and crop productivity by accelerating recovery from photoprotection. Science (2016).