Bioengineering Better Photosynthesis Increases Yields in Important Food Crop

For the first time, researchers for RIPE (Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency) have proven that multigene bioengineering of photosynthesis increases the yield of a major food crop in field trials. After more than a decade of working toward this goal, a collaborative team led by researchers at the University of Illinois has transgenically altered soybean plants to increase the efficiency of photosynthesis, resulting in greater yields without loss of quality.

“The major impact of this work is to open the roads for showing that we can bioengineer photosynthesis and improve yields to increase food production in major crops,” said Amanda De Souza, PhD, RIPE project research scientist. “It is the beginning of the confirmation that the ideas ingrained by the RIPE project are a successful means to improve yield in major food crops …The number of people affected by food insufficiency continues to grow, and projections clearly show that there needs to be a change at the food supply level to change the trajectory. Our research shows an effective way to contribute to food security for the people who need it most while avoiding more land being put into production. Improving photosynthesis is a major opportunity to gain the needed jump in yield potential.” Additional field tests of these transgenic soybean plants are being conducted this year, with results expected in early 2023.

De Souza is lead author of the researchers’ published paper in Science, which is titled, “Soybean photosynthesis and crop yield are improved by accelerating recovery from photoprotection.”

Figures suggest that food supply isn’t increasing fast enough to guarantee food security for all. According to UNICEF, by 2030, more than 660 million people are expected to face food scarcity and malnutrition. Two of the major causes of this are inefficient food supply chains (access to food) and harsher growing conditions for crops due to climate change. RIPE is an international research project that aims to increase global food production by improving photosynthetic efficiency in food crops for smallholder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa, with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research, and the U.K. Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office. Improving access to food and improving the sustainability of food crops in impoverished areas are the key goals of this study and the RIPE project.

The availability of seed that can achieve a higher yield per unit of land area would be one way to reduce food shortage, and provide food security to poorer regions, without increasing the amount of land needed to produce it, the authors wrote. “Improving photosynthesis has been suggested as a major opportunity to gain the needed jump in yield potential.”

Photosynthesis, the natural process all plants use to convert sunlight into energy and yield, is a surprisingly inefficient 100+ step process that RIPE researchers have been working to improve for more than a decade. For their newly published work, the group improved the VPZ construct within the soybean plant to improve photosynthesis. They then conducted field trials to see if yield would be improved as a result.

The VPZ construct contains three genes that code for proteins of the xanthophyll cycle, which is a pigment cycle that helps in the photoprotection of plants. Once in full sunlight, this cycle is activated in the leaves to protect them from damage, allowing leaves to dissipate the excess energy. “Plants dissipate potentially damaging excess absorbed light energy in full sunlight by inducing a mechanism termed nonphotochemical quenching (NPQ),” the investigators explained. However, when the leaves are shaded (by other leaves, clouds, or the sun moving in the sky) this photoprotection needs to switch off so the leaves can continue the photosynthesis process with a reserve of sunlight.

It takes several minutes for the plant to switch off the protective mechanism, costing plants valuable time that could have been used for photosynthesis. “… NPQ mechanisms are slow to relax following the frequent sun–shade transitions that occur within crop canopies,” the team continued. In fact, studies suggest that this results in 7.5% to 30% loss of photochemical energy that could otherwise be used for photosynthesis. “For soybean crop canopies, this slow NPQ relaxation upon sun–shade transitions was calculated to cost >11% of daily carbon assimilation,” they further commented.

The overexpression of the three genes from the VPZ construct accelerates the process of relaxing photoprotection, so every time a leaf transitions from light to shade the photoprotection switches off faster. Leaves gain extra minutes of photosynthesis which, when added up throughout the entire growing season, increases the total photosynthetic rate.

The team’s new research has shown that the modifications resulted in a more than 20% increase in yield, and importantly, without impacting seed quality. “Despite higher yield, seed protein content was unchanged,” said co-author Stephen Long, RIPE director, and the Ikenberry endowed university chair of crop sciences and plant biology at Illinois’ Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology. ”This suggests some of the extra energy gained from improved photosynthesis was likely diverted to the nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the plant’s nodules.”

The researchers first tested their idea in tobacco plants because of the ease of transforming the crop’s genetics and the amount of seeds that can be produced from a single plant. These factors allow researchers to go from genetic transformation to a field trial within months. Once the concept was proven in tobacco, they moved into the more complicated task of putting the genetics into a food crop, soybeans, which represents the fourth most important grain crop, and the most important single source of vegetable protein, they pointed out.

Commenting on their results, the team noted, “In replicated field trials, photosynthetic efficiency in fluctuating light was higher and seed yield in five independent transformation events increased by up to 33%. Despite increased seed quantity, seed protein and oil content were unaltered … This validates increasing photosynthetic efficiency as a much needed strategy toward sustainably increasing crop yield in support of future global food security.”

Long added, “Having now shown very substantial yield increases in both tobacco and soybean, two very different crops, suggests this has universal applicability. Our study shows that realizing yield improvements is strongly affected by the environment. It is critical to determine the repeatability of this result across environments and further improvements to ensure the environmental stability of the gain.”

The RIPE project and its sponsors are committed to ensuring global access and making the project’s technologies available to the farmers who need them the most. Results of this magnitude couldn’t come at a more crucial time. A recent UN report found that in 2021 nearly 10% of the world population was hungry, a situation that has been steadily worsening over the last few years and eclipsing all other threats to global health in scale.

In their paper, the authors concluded, that their results demonstrate that “… under field conditions, direct bioengineering of increased photosynthetic efficiency leads to increased yield in replicated plots in a major food and feed crop.” And while no nitrogen fertilizer was added to the soybean crop, “ … more seed was produced without any reduction in protein, nitrogen, and oil content, showing this as a means to the sustainable increases in yield urgently needed to help ensure future food security.”

Long further stated, “This has been a road of more than a quarter century for me personally. Starting first with a theoretical analysis of theoretical efficiency of crop photosynthesis, simulation of the complete process by high-performance computation, followed by application of optimization routines that indicated several bottlenecks in the process in our crops. Funding support over the past ten years has now allowed us to engineer alleviation of some of these indicated bottlenecks and test the products at field scale. After years of trial and tribulation, it is wonderfully rewarding to see such a spectacular result for the team.”

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