Scientists Tout New Way to Boost Photosynthesis

(CN) – A study released Thursday offers a glimmer of hope for more efficient crops that can better fill up on warm sunlight and grow bigger and healthier.

Plant photosynthesis is at the center of the study, published in the journal Science, helmed by researchers from the University of Illinois and U.S. Department of Agriculture who say they have engineered a bio-shortcut for plants to become 40 percent more efficient in gathering sunlight and converting that into energy.

An unmodified plant (right) grows beside a modified plant (left) engineered with an alternate route to shortcut photorespiration—a circuitous and energy-expensive process that costs yield potential. The modified plants are able to reinvest their energy and resources to significantly boost productivity. (Photo credit: Claire Benjamin/RIPE Project)

Researchers say this could potentially feed up to 200 million more people from the amount of energy that is otherwise lost when plants are taxed and use energy-expensive means to gather nutrients from the sun.

This anti-photosynthesis process can be engineered out of plants by introducing new pathways to help plants better turn carbon dioxide and water into sugars that make them grow.

Over a two-year period, researchers stress-tested this process on 1,700 tobacco plants, which grew faster, taller and produced about 40 percent more biomass.

“Reclaiming even a portion of these calories across the world would go a long way to meeting the 21st Century’s rapidly expanding food demands – driven by population growth and more affluent high-calorie diets,” said Donald Ort, the Robert Emerson professor of plant science and crop sciences at the University of Illinois.

The team will next apply the process to soybean, cowpea, rice, potato, tomato, and eggplant crops, but don’t expect to see any of these results in the produce aisle anytime soon as it will take at least a decade for the technology to become common practice.

Meanwhile, in another study on light and heat published Thursday in the journal Science, physicists from Rice University in Texas have created the world’s first laser-cooled neutral plasma. It’s no small feat, as the team used laser cooling on clouds of rapidly expanding ions to temperatures about 50 times colder than deep space.

Plasmas tend to naturally occur in very hot places, like the surface of the sun or in a lightning bolt, but in order to study the matter, scientists had to cool, slow and trap particles with intersecting laser beams.

This allows physicists to study coupled plasmas outside of where they naturally occur, like at the center of Jupiter or in white dwarf stars due to their intense gravity-squeezing of ions.

Lead scientist Tom Killian, professor of physics and astronomy at Rice, said his team is not aware of the practical payoff at this point, but the work allows for the study of exotic states of matter.

“Nobody predicted that laser cooling atoms and ions would lead to the world’s most accurate clocks or breakthroughs in quantum computing. We do this because it’s a frontier,” said Killian.

The research was supported by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

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