News - November 24, 2016

Turbo plants can boost food production

Albert Sikkema

The Wageningen alumnus Wanne Kromdijk and American colleagues of his have created a tobacco plant with a 15 percent higher yield. The research holds out the promise of raising food production, says Jeremy Harbinson of the Horticulture and product physiology chair group.

What exactly did the researchers in America do?

‘They increased the plant’s productivity by improving the photosynthesis. All plants have a safety valve which puts a break on photosynthesis in bright sunlight to prevent damage to the plant. That switch goes on when there is excess light and off when there is less light. But it is slow, so photosynthesis is not very efficient. The researchers speed up this process using a few genes from Arabidopsis, and then photosynthesis can get up to speed again faster after a period of bright sunlight.            

Why do they use genes from Arabidopsis when all plants have these genes?

‘Because Arabidopsis was a model plant, and all its characteristics were pretty much known. The tobacco plant and food crops probably have this gene too, but you have to find it first. This is a proof of principle for being able to boost production of food crops. A yield increase of 15 percent from just a few adjustments is great.

Is it a new approach?

‘The results are part of a broader programme for increasing agricultural yields through better photosynthesis. There was a story about a new super-wheat in the New Scientist this week. The yield of this wheat is about 15 percent bigger due to improvements to the photosynthesis, claim British researchers. Better photosynthesis is seen as the main way of boosting food production in the decades to come.

But it is genetic modification.

‘Indeed. It is possible that you might be able to improve the photosynthesis mechanism using traditional breeding, because there is probably a natural variation in how effectively plants convert sunlight into biomass. But it is a lot easier with GM technology.’