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This Scientific Breakthrough Could Completely Change the Way the World Grows Food

The solution? Just get plant life to more efficiently photosynthesize.
Photo by Jayne Andd via Flickr

While it's most certainly true that that is no simple answer to an incredibly complex problem, it just so happens that humanity may have just stumbled upon a key solution to dealing with the increasingly critical issue of feeding a ballooning global population.

The solution? Just get plant life to more efficiently photosynthesise.

A group of researchers have astoundingly discovered a method to increase the amount of light plants can use for photosynthesis as much as 20 percent, a result that could significantly improve crop yields. The results of the research—performed by scientists at the Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Illinois—were published this week in the journal Science.


Turns out, photosynthesis as it occurs in nature is rather inefficient. Many row crops use less than 2 percent of the sunlight that graces the surfaces of their leaves. The problem is that leaves have a type of a safety valve that makes their chloroplasts less efficient in bright light and more so in shade, but the researchers realised that a natural delay in the safety valve was causing plants not to be making sugar when they could. By improving the production of three proteins involved in what is called "non-photochemical quenching," the scientists found that they could dramatically improve the productivity of plants.

"That's pretty amazing… if this could be put into all of our food and feed and fuel crops, then it would solve certainly a decade or more's worth of our need for these agricultural products," Sabeeha Merchant, a biochemist from UCLA who was not involved in the study, told the LA Times.

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The researchers are now interested in seeing if they can improve the output of crops like rice and other staple grains, although tobacco was the crop used in the study "because it is easy to work with," said co-senior author Krishna Niyogi. "The molecular processes we're modifying are fundamental to plants that carry out photosynthesis, so we hope to see a similar increase in yield in other crops," she added.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, food production will need to increase by "some 70 percent between 2005-07 and 2050. Production in developing countries would need to almost double." That's because the "world population is expected to grow by over a third, or 2.3 billion people, between 2009 and 2050." Needless to say, no definitive solution yet exists.

"My attitude is that it is very important to have these new technologies on the shelf now because it can take 20 years before such inventions can reach farmer's fields," said Stephen Long, a plant biology and crop sciences professor at Illinois, who worked on the study. "If we don't do it now, we won't have this solution when we need it."

The photosynthesis research was supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and under terms of that support, any new technology licensed from it will be made available to farmers in beleaguered African and South Asian nations for free.

Maybe there is some slim hope for the future of mankind—in the humble plant.