Re-engineering photosynthesis: How two LSU biology professors hope to feed the world’s growing population

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By Josh Archote

This piece was originally published on November 27, 2020, by The Reveille.

In 2016, biology professor Paul South tested his shortcut on plants that allows them to use their energy when they’re taking in carbon dioxide. Courtesy of Paul South.

By 2050, the world population is expected to increase to nearly 10 billion people. Consequently, overall food demand is projected to increase over 50%, according to the World Resources Institute

Meanwhile, climate change will result in an increasingly inhospitable climate for agriculture by reducing the amount of arable land and water availability, as well as the increased prevalence of extreme weather such as droughts, heatwaves and flooding. 

As more people populate the earth, significant amounts of arable land will be converted into homes. To meet growing demands for food, then, scientists will have to find ways to increase food production without expanding agricultural land. 

One way to achieve this is by biochemically engineering crops to produce higher yields, a task two LSU biology professors are working on.  

LSU biology professors Paul South and James Moroney are a part of the Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency (RIPE) project, a collaboration of scientists around the world seeking to increase plant photosynthetic efficiency for sustainable increases in crop yields. 

Through photosynthesis, plants make food for most life forms, as well as oxygen and fuel. With a steady supply of water and sunlight, plants take carbon dioxide from the air and introduce it to an enzyme called RuBisCO and create energy-rich organic compounds that humans and most animals eat. 

However, photosynthesis is not perfect. Occasionally, instead of taking a carbon dioxide molecule from the air, plants take an oxygen molecule by mistake and create something called glycolate instead of organic matter. 

By fixing this problem and making photosynthesis more efficient, scientists could increase crop yields and help feed the growing population.

The RIPE project is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In 2012, the Gates foundation invited 13 scientists working on photosynthesis from around the world to Seattle. Moroney said he and the other scientists were asked what they would do to improve photosynthesis if they were provided research funding. 

“When I was talking to the Gates people when we first started eight or nine years ago,” Moroney said, “I basically asked ‘What’s the driving force behind this project?’ They said, ‘Our analysis shows that at some point between 2035 and 2050, the amount of food availability is going to be outstripped by the population and we would like there to be more options for how to feed people.’”

The RIPE project consists of several separate research approaches to increase photosynthetic efficiency. Moroney’s project, algal mechanisms, involves finding a way to use “algae technology” to help terrestrial crop plants take in carbon dioxide like algae does.  

Algae have evolved to be good at photosynthesis despite having lower concentrations of carbon dioxide. Moroney and his team want to transfer the algal mechanism of taking in carbon dioxide to food crops. 

“The simplest explanation of what we do is we put proteins and genes from algae into plants on land to see if they’ll pull in carbon dioxide better,” Moroney said in a press release. 

If successful, Moroney’s research could result in significant improvements in global food production. However, Moroney remains skeptical, saying the success of his project is somewhat of a long-shot.  

“The algal mechanism that I’m working on was considered and still is considered the biggest risk/reward — the longest time frame, biggest reward but least likely to succeed,” Moroney said. “That’s why I call it science fiction.”

A year after Moroney joined the RIPE research team, South, who was still a postdoc at the University of Illinois at the time, joined the project. 

South engineered a shortcut for plants that allows them to utilize their energy when they’re taking in carbon dioxide, allowing them to more efficiently photosynthesize and grow.

In 2016, South tested his shortcut on some plants. He said he walked into the greenhouse and immediately noticed a difference in the size of the engineered plants. 

“I didn’t have to measure — I could see right away,” South said in a press release. “We had almost a 40% increase in plant growth. After that, it got really exciting. People were shocked at the amount of increase we observed.” 

South is in the process testing the shortcut on traditional food crops, but this process takes time. 

“Usually once you initiate a transformation of genetic material you’re usually looking at a year of development before you can have the seeds ready for preliminary experiments,” South said.  

South and Moroney collaborate with other RIPE researchers around the world, including scientists in China, Australia, the United Kingdom as well as UC Berkeley and the University of Illinois.  

The RIPE project has the potential to save billions of people from starvation and malnourishment if researchers can succeed in finding ways to improve photosynthetic rates in crop plants and increase food availability. 

“The importance of this work is becoming more obvious, I think,” Moroney said. “Mainly, it would be nice if we all can make it to 2100 without another World War. People get unhappy when they’re not fed.”

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