RIPE Researchers Prove Bioengineering Better Photosynthesis Increases Yields in Food Crops for the First Time

Year Awarded  2017

FFAR award amount   $15,000,000

Total award amount   $45,000,000

Location   Urbana-Champaign, IL

Matching Funders   The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the U.K. Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), formerly the U.K. Department for International Development (DFID)

  • Soil Health

Soybean leaves

Importance of Breakthrough

For the first time, Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency (RIPE) researchers have proven that multigene bioengineering of photosynthesis increases the yield of a major food crop in field trials. After more than a decade of working toward this goal, a collaborative team led by the University of Illinois has transgenically altered soybean plants to increase the efficiency of photosynthesis, resulting in greater yields without loss of quality.

RIPE scientist in the field
RIPE project research scientist Amanda De Souza. Credit: Allie Arp/RIPE project

Details about this breakthrough

The efficiency of photosynthesis in plants, the process of converting sunlight into energy, can be greatly improved. RIPE researchers are engineering staple food crops to conduct photosynthesis more efficiently to sustainably increase worldwide food productivity. In this first-of-its-kind work, recently published in Science, the group improved the VPZ construct within the soybean plant to improve photosynthesis and then conducted field trials to see if yield would be improved as a result.

The VPZ construct contains three genes that code for proteins of the xanthophyll cycle, which is a pigment cycle that helps in the photoprotection of the plants. Once in full sunlight, this cycle is activated in the leaves to protect them from damage, allowing leaves to dissipate the excess energy. However, when the leaves are shaded (by other leaves, clouds, or the sun moving in the sky) this photoprotection needs to switch off so the leaves can continue the photosynthesis process with a reserve of sunlight. It takes several minutes for the plant to switch off the protective mechanism, costing plants valuable time that could have been used for photosynthesis.

The overexpression of the three genes from the VPZ construct accelerates the process, so every time a leaf transitions from light to shade the photoprotection switches off faster. Leaves gain extra minutes of photosynthesis which, when added up throughout the entire growing season, increases the total photosynthetic rate. This research has shown that despite achieving a more than 20% increase in yield, seed quality was not impacted.

The researchers first tested their idea in tobacco plants because of the ease of transforming the crop’s genetics and the amount of seeds that can be produced from a single plant. These factors allow researchers to go from genetic transformation to a field trial within months. Once the concept was proven in tobacco, they moved into the more complicated task of putting the genetics into a food crop, soybeans.

The major impact of this work is to open the roads for showing that we can bioengineer photosynthesis and improve yields to increase food production in major crops. It is the beginning of the confirmation that the ideas ingrained by the RIPE project are a successful means to improve yield in major food crops. Amanda De Souza
RIPE project research scientist
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