Supercharging photosynthesis: genetic modification you can get behind
With food security becoming such a massive issue, this is the the kind of genetic modification you could get behind
The global population is expanding exponentially and is projected to exceed 10 billion by 2050, but the land we use to produce food is disappearing. We currently can't make enough food to sustain ourselves, so there is little chance we can realistically feed everyone without serious intervention.
People are doing everything they can to tackle issues of climate change and food security, with a lot of the available solutions benefiting both, but if we are to avoid a global food crisis in our future, our efforts need to be drastically upscaled and we need to think more radically.
It's an established fact that generating crops is more environmentally sustainable than generating meat and, given the urgency with which it needs to be addressed, it's here that has our focus.
Scientists at the University of Sheffield have been gaining a better understanding of what makes plants grow at the rate they do and determining if there are ways to manipulate this. Plants generate the energy they need to grow using photosynthesis, a process that uses water, carbon dioxide, and energy from the sun to make glucose. They use the glucose for energy and release oxygen, as a byproduct.
The more glucose they make, the more they can grow. Essentially, the leaves function as solar panels, collecting energy from the sun that can be used to build the glucose, via a series of enzymes. As you might expect, if there is less sun, there can be more glucose made, but the same is true of the enzymes – think of them as the workers making food for the plant, using solar energy.
Other than residing in a very sunny country, there is little you can do to increase your solar input, but the enzymes are a modifiable element. Normally the plant can use more or less of these enzymes depending on how much sun there is, to maximise output and minimise damage.
One enzyme in particular has been found to be important, cytochrome b6f. Plants have been found to grow at a rate proportional to the amount of this enzyme they contain. The hope would be that we could modify plants to have more of this enzyme so that they can grow much quicker than they do currently and we can massively increase crop yield.
Of course, this isn't the first time genetic modification has been deployed in an attempt to make food levels match population levels, but this is being seen as a more ethically viable option than previous attempts.