Photosynthesis, it turns out, isn’t very efficient. If you remember back to your grade school biology classes, it’s the method by which plants convert sunlight into food, but many of our most important food crops can only manage to convert between one and two percent of the solar radiation they receive into usable sugar. As it turns out, plants are sometimes their own enemies in this endeavor, and scientists have now discovered a way to genetically modify crops to “unlock” more of their potential, potentially increasing photosynthetic efficiency—and therefore plant growth—by as much as 15 percent. The BBC reports:
Lead researcher Prof Stephen Long, based at the the University of Illinois and the University of Lancaster, said decades of research into the 140-step process by which plants convert sunlight energy into food had revealed specific “inefficiencies in crops”. “There are bottlenecks holding up the conversion of sunlight energy into food,” he told BBC News. “Our research has tackled one of those bottlenecks.” […]
The scientists targeted a plant’s natural Sun-protection mechanism – while plants have evolved to produce food using sunlight energy, they have also evolved to protect themselves from Sun damage, which slows the process down. “[To protect itself], the leaf induces a process that gets rid of excess energy as heat,” Prof Long told BBC News.
“But the problem is when a cloud moves across the Sun, there’s less sunlight energy – the plant could use it all, but it carries on dispensing that energy as heat. “So what we’ve done is speed up the process by which that heat loss [switches off].”
The team inserted extra copies of the genes responsible for this heat-loss switch. And when they then grew their genetically modified crop, it grew 15% larger than normal. “This is a big jump,” said Prof Long.
Feeding the world’s billions of people is one of the biggest challenges we as a species have before us this century, as the global population is expected to rise to more than 9 billion. But while Malthusians and doomsaying greens prefer to dwell on the enormity of the task and wallow in their despair, researchers are hard at work trying to better understand the mechanisms by which we feed ourselves, and are finding ways for our species to improve on natural processes and increase global food security.
GMOs get a bad rap from fear mongering environmentalists, but when you actually ask the experts about these technologies, you find that the scientific consensus is that they’re perfectly safe. A recent report from the New York Times cast doubt on GMOs’ ability to actually increase crop yields, but the allure of even just this latest development is to strong to dismiss out of some green bias against what some perceive to be “unnatural” (never mind that virtually every crop grown for human consumption has been altered from its “natural” state through selective breeding).
The tensions between human development and the environment in which we live produce problems of varying scope and severity, but our capacity to problem solve is often subsumed by the belief that we’re on our way to rapaciously consuming our planet’s natural resources until they’re all used up. But it’s in our own best interest to develop new ways to sustainably flourish on this, our only home, and if there’s one thing modern civilization has proven itself capable of, it’s pursuing self interests. Feeding future generations and mitigating/adapting to climate change aren’t low hurdles to clear, but they’re not insurmountable, either.