By STEVE BINDER
URBANA, Ill. — Improving the efficiency of photosynthesis to help increase the world’s food supply in the coming decades is the goal of a $25 million grant awarded to University of Illinois researchers last week.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced a five-year award that will fund photosynthesis-focused research, all in the name of increasing the amount of food available for a world with a growing population.
The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization predicts that by 2050 the amount of staple crops such as rice will have to increase by 70 percent to meet the population’s demand across the globe, said Stephen Long, a U of I crop sciences researcher who will lead the project.
“There is a concern there could be real starvation in the world if something isn’t done,” Long said. “The rapid increases that were achieved during the Green Revolution (mid-20th century) have slowed and will not meet this target.
“Photosynthesis promises a new area, ripe for exploitation … that will provide part of the yield jump the world needs to maintain food security.”
Long will lead a team of six professors at the U of I, including Don Ort, a professor in plant physiology who also leads the Genomic Ecology of Global Change research at the Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB). Those involved at the U of I come from subject areas such as crop sciences and plant biology, as well as civil and environmental engineering.
The project, to be called Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency, or RIPE, also will look at water-use efficiency, Long said.
“Business-as-usual crop development in the face of accelerating agricultural demand and the challenges of rapid global change will not get the job done,” Ort said. “This award invests in unique strengths at Illinois as well as at our collaborating institutions, and holds exceptional promise for broad-impact outcomes.”
IGB Director Gene Robinson added, “This grant reflects the historic excellence of photosynthesis research on this campus, and the cutting-edge approaches that have been developed for plant science at the IGB over the past few years, by the members of the Genomic Ecology of Global Change and Energy Biosciences research themes.”
Long noted researchers will build on research already conducted, having even identified a way to insert certain proteins into the photosynthetic process. Whether it can be expanded so it increases yields in staple crops is the goal.
“We’ve constructed a theoretical framework on how to start to improve the photosynthesis of crops, and moved on to some transgenic approaches that have proved fruitful,” he said.
Long explained with computer simulation models they’ve tested the process in tobacco, a crop easy to work with, and now will take aim at crops such as rice and cassava, two staples grown in Southeast Asia and Africa.
Illinois will conduct the study through an international collaboration with other research institutions such as Australian National University, Rothamsted Research and the University of Essex in England and the USDA’s Agriculture Research Service.