Photosynthesis Can Be Redesigned to Increase Crop Yields: Study
Wed, April 21, 2021

Photosynthesis Can Be Redesigned to Increase Crop Yields: Study

Photosynthesis is a process used by algae, plants, and certain bacteria to harness energy from sunlight, convert it into chemical energy. / Photo by: mettus via 123rf


Scientists from the University of Sheffield in England have unlocked one of the key components of photosynthesis, a discovery that could potentially lead photosynthesis to be redesigned so that the world will have higher crop yields and meet the ever-increasing food security needs of the world.

The “Beating Heart” of Photosynthesis

The findings, which recently appeared in the American research platform Science Daily, showed the structure of the protein complex called cytochrome b6f, which influences the growth of the plant through photosynthesis. The scientists referred to this protein complex as the “beating heart” of photosynthesis.

Photosynthesis is a process used by algae, plants, and certain bacteria to harness energy from sunlight, convert it into chemical energy. While it is already a brilliant process introduced by nature, that will not stop scientists to try to improve it for better results, just like what the University of Sheffield researchers did.

They highlighted that photosynthesis serves as the foundation of life here on Earth as it provides the energy, oxygen, and food that sustains human civilization and the biosphere. First author Lorna Malone, who is also a Ph.D. student in the Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, said that their research offers new insights into how the cytochrome b6f uses the electrical current that is passing through it to help power the proton battery. Then, the stored energy can be used to make adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is a complex organic chemical that provides energy to drive the processes in living cells. This is the reaction that provides energy to plants so they can turn carbon dioxide into biomass and carbohydrates that will sustain our food chain.

Redesigning Photosynthesis

Dr. Matt Johnson, a plant biologist at the University of Sheffield, England, stated that with the new insights they obtained from the structure, they are hoping to rationally redesign the photosynthesis in plants to help increase crop yields that the world needs to sustain the global population of 9 to 10 billion by the year 2050. Johnson has also cited previous studies that showed how manipulating the levels of cytochrome b6f can help people grow better and bigger plants.

They developed their high-resolution structure model of the cytochrome b6f using cryo-electron microscopy. It helped them make sense of the complicated shape of the protein complex. They were likewise able to better visualize the electrical connections between photosystems I and II. These are a pair of light-powered chlorophyll proteins that are found in the chloroplasts. 

The University of Sheffield shared in its official news site that their scientists have collaborated with the University of Leeds’ Astbury Center for Structural Molecular Biology by utilizing their facilities. For their future research, they hope to determine how cytochrome b6f is being controlled by other regulatory proteins and how said regulators affect how the protein complex functions.


The scientists are hoping to rationally redesign the photosynthesis in plants to help increase crop yields and meet the increasing food security needs of the world. / Photo by: urospoteko via 123rf


Plant biologist Amanda Cavanagh from the University of Illinois commented that they were aware that increasing some part of the cytochrome b6f protein complex can lead to increases in plants. Yet, it has been difficult to particularly pinpoint which of that component to target for improvement. Cavanagh is not involved in the study with the University of Sheffield. She, however, co-authored a study earlier this year that involved genetic modifications of the photosynthesis that helped improve crop growth.

Their study involved using computer simulations to design the new processes of dealing with glycolate, a byproduct of photorespiration that is toxic to crops. They connected new DNA into the chloroplasts of tobacco plants where photosynthesis happens. After the experiments, they saw an increase of more than 40 percent in the amount of biomass that the tobacco plants produced. Their research received a grant from the UK Department for International Development, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Foundation for Food and Agriculture.

Increasing Agricultural Productivity Without Harming the Environment

In 2015, Chinese scientists introduced an innovative way of increasing agricultural productivity without harming the environment. After 150 field experiments in the major production areas for maize, wheat, and rice, they found that optimized nutrient requirements, climate, and local soil conditions can match scientific inputs to boost yields and lessen the reliance on fertilizers. China is the biggest producer and consumer of fertilizers in the world. The researchers also introduced the integrated soil-crop system management, wherein they match the crop strains to local climate and soils and apply more precise data for sowing.

BioFlora, a company that works with growers to find the best possible solutions for their specific needs in the agricultural industry, said that some of the issues that growers face nowadays are low-yield soil, soil pathogens (soil-borne diseases), and poor water utilization. As the quality of soil deteriorates, it will also lower crop yields and quality. BioFlora believed that to increase crop yield, the change should be done from the ground up. For instance, soils should be tested to determine if it is causing a decline in crop yield, whether it is because of a lack of nutrients or not.