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Boosting Tobbacco photosynthesis could apply to food crops as well

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Research to increase the speed of plant growth received a $45 million reinvestment this month.

The Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency, or RIPE, project is being studied at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. RIPE has studied different ways to improve photosynthesis in tobacco plants and has shown an 18-20 percent increase in yields.

Tests continue with the goal to increase other crops’ yields in food-insecure areas. The third generation of tobacco is planted in a field in Illinois between cornfields. Tests on cassava root, a vital food source in Africa, have just started. Future plants to be researched include soybeans, rice and wheat.

While results so far have been impressive, Paul South, a biologist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service, said the research is still at least 10 years and millions of dollars from being ready for a commercial market.

South is focused on reducing photorespiration, the inefficient use of energy that could be used to improve photosynthesis. Weather can impact the efficiency of photosynthesis – if it is hot, there is drought or a cloud blocks the sun, most plants decrease photosynthesis by 5-15 percent.

Even after conditions have changed, and the cloud has moved on, it takes most plants time to return to normal photosynthesis. If that process could be faster, it would impact yields. In the tobacco plants used in the tests, there was a visible increase in the biomass.

“If we could reduce (the slower photosynthesis) by 5 percent, we could potentially produce 68 million more bushels of soybeans,” South posited.

A regional-scale model indicated photorespiration decreases U.S. soybean and wheat yields by 36 and 20 percent, respectively. A 5 percent increase in photosynthesis would result in about $500 million annually, states the report The Cost of Photorespiration to Food Production Now and in the Future.

Tobacco was used in the original tests because it is easy to manipulate genetically and scientists have a good understanding of the genetics of the plant. The plant is not farmed in Illinois, which prevents cross-breeding with the crops in the area. At the same time, the plant is not allowed to go to flower, which controls the spread of the genetics.

The tobacco plants’ genetics have been manipulated with the genetics of pumpkin, algae and Arabidopsis. In different studies, bacteria were used with success, but the plant genetics seemed to have the best result in the tobacco plants, South said.

“We’ve tweaked genes to bypass the native process,” he added. The different genes are moved to different locations in the plant’s DNA to see what is most efficient.

While the point of the study is to assist with crop yields in sub-Saharan Africa, everyone understands there are potential commercial applications on U.S. farms. U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill) has been watching the progress of RIPE for several years. To see the nondescript buildings near Urbana, he said no one would know a solution to world hunger might be inside.

“We’re going to have hundreds of millions more people on this globe and less land to use for farming,” he said.

Modern crop yields wouldn’t have been believed by a 1950s farmer. With this research, today’s farmers would not be able to believe future yields, he said. “If the science continues to be proven, it can drastically increase yields our farmers are going to be able to harvest in any crops.”

During the announcement for refunding, Davis was one of the people invited to tour the facilities and learn more about the research. He said global hunger leads to a national security threat.

“People who are hungry are more likely to join extremist organizations to feed their families,” he explained.

South said the plants produced are genetically modified crops. The crops need to be tested to make sure no allergens from the other plants have been bred into them.

There are three control groups in the tobacco plants: one group has never had genes altered, one has transformed DNA but not the genes being tested and a third group has been transformed with the same genetic changes but the process is no longer active in the plant. Placed side by side with the plants with the active genetic changes, the tobacco plant is visually larger than the plants in the control groups.

The $45 million is a five-year reinvestment from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research and the United Kingdom Department for International Development.

“Annual yield gains are stagnating, and means to achieve substantial improvement must be developed now if we are to provide sufficient food by 2030 and beyond for a growing and increasingly urban world population, when food production must also adapt sustainably to a changing climate,” said RIPE Director Stephen Long, Gutgsell Endowed Professor of Crop Sciences and Plant Biology at the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology at the U of I.

Photosynthesis has been studied for about 50 years at the university. More information about the program can be found at