Photosynthesis research from the University of Illinois and U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service has been gaining global attention. The work of Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency (RIPE) has been featured by Reuters, BBC, Science Daily, The Japan Times and many others.  The study is part of an international project to boost global food production sustainably.

Changing the way crops like soybeans, rice and wheat process sunlight has the potential to increase yields by 40 percent, according to the researchers’ report published in the journal Science. 

These crops, along with fruits and vegetables, use the C3 photosynthesis process, which has a natural “glitch” or inefficiency in the use of energy as resources.

“We could feed up to 200 million additional people with the calories lost to photorespiration in the Midwestern U.S. each year,” said principal investigator Donald Ort, the Robert Emerson Professor of Plant Science and Crop Sciences at Illinois’ Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology in a press release. “Reclaiming even a portion of these calories across the world would go a long way to meeting the 21st Century’s rapidly expanding food demands—driven by population growth and more affluent high-calorie diets.”

Researchers inserted genes from bacteria, green algae and other plants into tobacco plants, shortcutting the C3 photosynthesis process. Two years of replicated field trials found that these engineered plants developed faster, grew taller, and saved enough energy to increase productivity by 40 percent in real-world conditions. 

According to Paul South, lead author and a research molecular biologist with the Agricultural Research Service, “Photosynthesis is nearly identical in plants, so we expect that benefits observed in tobacco will result in changes to food crops.” 

The team is now translating these findings to boost the yield of soybeans, rice, potatoes, and other crops. 

“It takes 10 to 15 years for technologies like this to undergo rigorous regulatory approval process, which examines engineered crops for health and environmental impacts. Thus, it is all the more urgent to invest in these types of technologies today,” said South. 

According to Timothy Searchinger, lecturer at Princeton University and senior fellow at the World Resources Institute who authored a recent report on sustainable food systems, the latest findings provide “important, promising work as it may open up new ways to expand crop yields.” 

Many innovations in agriculture, come with costly intellectual property rights, but RIPE and its sponsors, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, are committed to ensuring that smallholder farmers, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, will have royalty-free access to all of the project’s breakthroughs.  According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, smallholder farmers provide up to 80 percent of the food supply in those regions.