Genetic Tweak to Photosynthesis Could Improve Crop Yields

While the tweak has yet to be tested in edible plants, scientists think this could revolutionize the food production -and olive production - industries.

Jan. 21, 2019
By Daniel Dawson

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Sci­en­tists from the United States Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture and the Uni­ver­sity of Illi­nois, Urbana have cre­ated a genetic hack” to increase the effec­tive­ness of pho­to­syn­the­sis and boost crop yields by up to 40 per­cent.

We’ve tried to engi­neer this short­cut to make them more energy effi­cient — and in field tri­als this trans­lated into a 40 per­cent increase in plant bio­mass.- Dr Paul South, mem­ber of the U.S. Agri­cul­tural Research Ser­vice

The study was done using tobacco plants, but the sci­en­tists said that sim­i­lar tech­niques could be used in C4 pho­to­syn­thetic plants. Tobacco is actu­ally a C3 plant, but it pho­to­syn­the­sizes like a C4 plant. Olive trees are C4 plants.

See more: Olive Oil Research

The so-called hack” works by remov­ing tox­ins, which are cre­ated as byprod­ucts of the pho­to­syn­thetic process. The plants nat­u­rally recy­cle the tox­ins, but this requires energy that could oth­er­wise be used toward cre­at­ing fruit.

It’s been esti­mated that in plants like soy­beans, rice and fruit and veg­eta­bles, [the nat­ural recy­cling of toxic byprod­ucts caused by pho­to­syn­the­sis] can be a sig­nif­i­cant drag on yield by as much as 36 per­cent,” Dr Paul South, the study’s lead author and mem­ber of the U.S. Agri­cul­tural Research Ser­vice, told the BBC.

We’ve tried to engi­neer this short­cut to make them more energy effi­cient — and in field tri­als this trans­lated into a 40 per­cent increase in plant bio­mass,” he added.


Rubisco is the plant pro­tein that is respon­si­ble for cap­tur­ing car­bon diox­ide and ini­ti­at­ing the pho­to­syn­thetic process. How­ever, dur­ing this process, Rubisco cap­tures oxy­gen instead about 20 per­cent of the time. These oxy­gen mol­e­cules are then respon­si­ble for cre­at­ing the toxic com­pound.

Plants have devel­oped their own, nat­ural, meth­ods for detox­i­fi­ca­tion, but the cur­rent process uses a lot of energy. Sci­en­tists likened the oxy­gen removal process to dri­ving from Maine to Florida by way of Cal­i­for­nia

In the mod­i­fied tobacco plants, sci­en­tists inserted new genes to shut­down the cur­rent method and replace it with a more energy effi­cient one.

The researchers’ next step will be to repli­cate the exper­i­ment with edi­ble crops, such as toma­toes and soy beans, to deter­mine whether this process has any adverse effects on the safety of the food that is pro­duced.

Based on these results, they will then need to con­vince the pub­lic as well as gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tors that their method is a safe workaround. As a result, the com­mer­cial and human­i­tar­ian use of these crops could be a ways off.

Dan Flynn, the exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Olive Cen­ter at Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Davis, told Olive Oil Times that he is unaware of any researchers look­ing into appli­ca­tions of this tech­nol­ogy for olives at the present moment and said it is unlikely to be a field of research at the cen­ter as well.

It is pos­si­ble that researchers may be exper­i­ment­ing with genetic mod­i­fi­ca­tion and gene edit­ing some­where in the world,” he said. But the Cal­i­for­nia indus­try is focused on other research pri­or­i­ties so the Olive Cen­ter does not antic­i­pate work­ing in this area for the fore­see­able future.”

The Inter­na­tional Olive Coun­cil, which often takes a lead­ing role in research related to olive cul­ti­va­tion and olive oil pro­duc­tion, had not com­mented on the study at the time of pub­li­ca­tion.

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