Advances in labs may hit home sooner than thought


Plant biologists and their research are in the news right now. The goal is to make plants more efficient and increase plant survival and crop yields.

Green plants are the powerhouses of earth’s ecosystem. They’re the only things that can take water, air and sunlight to make their own food. The process — photosynthesis — produces carbohydrates.

The rest of us have learned to steal these carbs to use as our own food.

Through the centuries, humans have bred plants to increase size, enhance flavor and provide more food both for ourselves and the animals we consume.

In the past, this has been accomplished through selective breeding programs, but now biologists are looking at ways to make the internal processes of plants more effective.

When plants respire (the equivalent of our breathing), they use an enzyme, rubisco, to identify carbon dioxide atoms to pull in through pores in their leaves.

But plants produce oxygen as a waste product, and now there’s lots of it.

Unlike the rest of us, plants can’t just exhale what they don’t use, so they expend a considerable amount of energy getting rid of oxygen. That’s energy the plant could use to grow and make food for the rest of us.

Experimenting with easy-to-manipulate tobacco plants, biologists have discovered better methods for plants to excrete oxygen.

As a result, the plants grow about 40% larger (although a lot of that growth is in the stems).

Now the race is on to see if the improvements can be transferred to food crops like rice, soy beans and nightshade family plants like tomatoes and potatoes.

Other labs are trying different ways to improve photosynthesis efficiency, again using tobacco plants.

One Gates Foundation lab is trying to do it by improving plant reactions to sunlight.

Plants have limits on how much sunlight they can use.

Photosynthesis produces heat as a byproduct.

If the plant produces too much energy it can’t dissipate the heat and leaf damage results.

As a safety measure in very high light, plants shut down metabolic activities to protect themselves.

But once the leaves shut down, it takes about 30 minutes to turn them back on. If the sky clouds up, the plants idle instead of immediately starting to produce energy again.

By modifying three genes, the plant shutdown can be shortened.

If this modification can be reproduced in food crops it should mean a 20% higher yield in both food and fodder crops.

These efforts are important.

The United Nations projects the world will require a 70% increase in food supplies by 2050.

Food insecurity is one of the leading causes of social instability and mass migration, so every country has a stake in this research.

The advances in these labs may make a difference in our own gardens sooner than we may imagine, although here in Port we’ve managed to avoid watering restrictions and most of the problems caused by record hot weather and drought.

But proximity to Lake Michigan won’t protect us forever.

We may face the same problems less fortunate areas are dealing with, sooner than we think.



Click Here to Send a Letter to the Editor

Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
(262) 284-3494


User login