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Extreme Makeover: Photosynthesis Edition

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Courtesy of Ensia

Plants are far better than humans at turning sunlight into food. But they’re not nearly as good as they could be: Thanks to quirks in the systems that have evolved to capture solar energy and use it to build sugars from carbon dioxide and water, the conversion efficiency of photosynthesis is but a few percent at best.

With the need to produce more crops growing even faster than human population, it’s no surprise that scientists have been brainstorming ways to help plants do a better job of using sunlight.

In a recent issue of the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, more than two dozen researchers from the U.S., France, Germany, the Netherlands, the U.K., Australia and China shared the results of a workshop in which they put their heads together and came up with a spectrum of suggestions for how genetic engineers might modify crop plants to boost their photosynthetic prowess. Among them: alter the apparatus that captures sunlight so it doesn’t take in more than it can use, borrow photosynthetic machinery from a purple microbe to expand the range of wavelengths plants can use, improve the ability of leaves to suck CO2 from the air, and create “smart canopies” in which plants fine-tune their photosynthetic capabilities to different lighting conditions at different distances from the ground.

Emphasizing that the convergence of advances in computer modeling, computer power and our ability to reproduce genetic material are opening the door to new abilities to refine processes within living organisms, the researchers encouraged colleagues to take a closer look at the opportunities.

“If we can double or triple the efficiency of photosynthesis — and I think that’s feasible,” study coauthor and Washington University biologist Robert Blankenship noted in a related news release, “the impact on agricultural productivity could be huge.”

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