RIPE Researchers Use Blue-green Algae to Boost Crop Yields

New Article in Nature Communications Highlights FFAR-funded Research Project

Researchers from the ARC Centre of Excellence in translational photosynthesis at the ANU have helped develop new techniques for improving photosynthesis in crops such as wheat, cowpeas and cassava. These improvement in photosynthesis has the potential to increase crop yields. From left to right are Nghiem D. Hguyen, Eng Kee Au, Wei Yih Hee, Eiri Heyno, Professor Dean Price, Professor Susanne van Caemmerer and Research Fellow Ben Long.

Scientists at The Australian National University (ANU) have engineered tiny carbon-capturing engines from blue-green algae into plants in a breakthrough that promises to help boost the yields of important food crops such as wheat, cowpeas and cassava.

The work was carried out by researchers at ANU as part of the international research project Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency (RIPE), which is supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR), and UK Department for International Development, in collaboration with members of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Translational Photosynthesis, whose lead node is located at ANU.

“The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research applauds the remarkable work conducted by researchers on the RIPE project,” said Sally Rockey, executive director of FFAR, one of the organizations funding the research. “These results show how cutting-edge science can help us feed the world and we look forward to working together to continue to support the research we need to spur innovation in agriculture.”

 

 

Lead researcher Dr Ben Long from ANU said the discovery was a major leap forward in improving the way crops convert carbon dioxide, water and sunlight into energy – a process called photosynthesis, which is one of the main limitations to crop yield.

“For the first time, we have inserted tiny compartments from cyanobacteria – commonly known as blue-green algae – into crop plants that form part of a system that could lead to a 60 percent increase in plant growth and yield,” said Dr Ben Long from the ANU Research School of Biology whose work has been funded by the international Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency (RIPE) consortium.

These compartments, called carboxysomes, are responsible for making cyanobacteria so efficient at transforming carbon dioxide into energy-rich sugars.

“Until now, inserting a carboxysome into a plant had been in the realm of science fiction and it has taken us more than five years to get to this point,” Dr Long said.

“We are trying to insert a turbo-charged carbon-capturing engine into plants, by mimicking a solution that cyanobacteria – the ancestors of modern plant chloroplasts, the green compartments where plants make their own food – found millions of years ago.”

Rubisco, the enzyme responsible for fixing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, is slow and finds it difficult to differentiate between carbon dioxide and oxygen, leading to wasteful energy loss.

“Unlike crop plants, cyanobacteria use what’s called a ‘CO2 concentrating mechanism’ to deliver large amounts of the gas into their carboxysomes, where their Rubisco is encapsulated,” Dr Long said.

“This mechanism increases the speed in which CO2 can be turned into sugar and minimises reactions with oxygen.”

The Rubisco enzyme inside cyanobacteria can capture carbon dioxide and generate sugars about three times faster than the Rubisco found in plants.

Computer models have shown that upgrading plant photosynthesis to use this mechanism will lead to a dramatic increase in plant growth and yield.

“We still have a lot of work to do, but achieving this in tobacco plants was an absolute essential step that has shown us we can expect to see crops with functional CO2 concentrating mechanisms in the future, producing higher yield,” Dr Long said.

Co-researcher Professor Dean Price from the ANU Research School of Biology said the discovery offered a promising long-term strategy to enhance global crop yields and environmental resilience.

“We need every creative effort to improve crop yields if we want to be able to feed the growing global population and these options take time, so we need to do it now,” said Professor Price, who is a Chief Investigator with the RIPE consortium and the Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for Translational Photosynthesis.

RIPE Director Stephen Long, Ikenberry Endowed University Chair of Crop Sciences and Plant Biology at the University of Illinois welcomed the discovery.

“When we supported this research, starting five years ago, we knew this was very high risk, but went ahead given the very great rewards it could lead to,” he said.

“We never expected to see carboxysomes in the crop chloroplast by this stage, maybe just pieces.

“So by assembling carboxysomes indistinguishable from those of cyanobacteria is a spectacular achievement, and puts us well on the road to be able to achieve the full system.”

This research is published in Nature Communications: doi: 10.1038/s41467-018-06044-0

Overcoming Water Scarcity

Overcoming Water Scarcity

Continue

Agriculture uses 70 percent of the world’s accessible freshwater. FFAR’s 2016-2018 Overcoming Water Scarcity Challenge Area addressed water use efficiency in agriculture by developing water conservation and reuse technologies, improving crop and livestock breeds, creating improved agronomic practices, increasing the social and economic tractability of conservation practices and enhancing the efficacy of Extension services.

FFAR’s Sustainable Water Management Challenge Area builds on earlier work to increase water availability and water efficiency for agricultural use, reduces agricultural water pollution and develops water reuse technologies.

Healthy Soils, Thriving Farms

Healthy Soils, Thriving Farms

Continue

FFAR’s 2016-2018 Healthy Soils, Thriving Farms Challenge Area increased soil health by building knowledge, fueling innovation, and enabling adoption of existing or new innovative practices that improve soil health.

The Soil Health Challenge Area advances existing research and identifies linkages between farm productivity and soil health, while also addressing barriers to the adoption of soil health practices.

Protein Challenge

Protein Challenge

Continue

FFAR’s 2016-2018 Protein Challenge Area sought to improve the environmental, economic and social sustainability of diverse proteins.

The Advance Animal Systems challenge area supports sustainable animal production through environmentally sound productions practices and advancement in animal health and welfare. Additionally, the Next Generation Crops Challenge Area develops non-traditional crops, including plant-based proteins, and creates new economic opportunities for conventional crops to increase future crop diversity and farm profitability.

Food Waste and Loss

Food Waste and Loss

Continue

About 40 percent of food in the US, or $161 billion each year, is lost or wasted. FFAR’s 2016-2018 Food and Waste Loss Challenge Area addressed the social, economic and environmental impacts from food waste and loss through research that developed of novel uses for agricultural waste, improved storage and distribution, supported tracking and monitoring, minimized spoilage through pre- and post-harvest innovations and changed behaviors to reduce food waste

FFAR’s current Health-Agriculture Nexus Challenge Area addresses food waste and loss and supports innovative, systems-level approaches to reduce food and nutritional insecurity and improve human health in the US and globally.

Forging the Innovation Pathway to Sustainability

Continue

Supporting innovation is necessary for sustainable results. Over the last 50 years, farmers have tripled global food production thanks to agricultural innovations. Forging the Innovation Pathway to Sustainability was a 2016-2018 Challenge Area that focused on understanding the barriers and processes that prevented the adoption of technology and research results into sustainable practices.

Urban Food Systems

Urban Food Systems

Continue

The 2016-2018 Urban Food Systems Challenge Area addressed feeding urban populations through urban and peri-urban agriculture and augmenting the capabilities of our current food system.

The Urban Food Systems Challenge Area continues this work and enhances our ability to feed urban populations.

Making My Plate Your Plate

Continue

FFAR’s 2016-2018 Making My Plate Your Plate Challenge Area focused on helping Americans meet the USDA 2015 Dietary Guideline recommendations for fruit and vegetable consumption, including research to both produce and provide access to nutritious fruits and vegetables.

FFAR’s current Health-Agriculture Nexus Challenge Area supports innovative, systems-level approaches to reduce food and nutritional insecurity and improve human health in the US and globally.