Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting nature.com. You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Amped-up plants

Subjects

Bacterial enzyme supercharges photosynthesis, promising increased yields for crops.

The catalytic conversion of carbon dioxide and water to sugar and oxygen is arguably the most important chemical reaction in the world, and one of the oldest. It is so old, in fact, that it evolved when the world’s atmosphere was much lower in oxygen than it is today. So, in a way, photosynthesis is its own worst enemy. Thousands of millions of years later, most modern plants struggle to photosynthesize because of all the darned oxygen in the air — oxygen that they helped to put there. These plants simply cannot distinguish between molecules of carbon dioxide and molecules of oxygen, so they waste their time and energy grabbing both.

Some plants can do better — for example, plenty of weeds (ever wondered why they grow so fast?) have evolved ways to concentrate carbon dioxide inside their leaves, to supercharge their photosynthesis. Cyanobacteria can do this too. But the majority of plants, including most of the crops we rely on for food, have developed a blunter strategy: produce lots and lots of the enzyme that drives the reaction. That enzyme, Rubisco, is thus among the most abundant proteins on the planet.

A significant amount of Rubisco still wastes its time grabbing useless oxygen — reducing the overall efficiency of global photosynthesis by almost one-third. When they discuss ways to boost the world’s food supplies, plenty of plant scientists see leaves’ wasted photosynthesis capacity as, well, low-hanging fruit.

What if crops could borrow the faster-acting Rubisco system of weeds and cyanobacteria? In theory, this would dramatically boost their growth rate and so their yield, all without needing any extra farmland. The appeal of such a strategy is obvious, particularly in the face of the often-quoted United Nations demand for global food production to double by 2050.

In practice, replacing the enzyme has proved difficult. But there is encouraging news: on Nature’s website, researchers report that they have made tobacco plants that use the Rubisco from a cyanobacterium (M. T. Linet al.Naturehttp://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature13776;2014). Sure enough, the transformed plants photosynthesize faster and have higher rates of CO2 turnover than their conventional counter­parts. Faster-growing tobacco plants might not sound like a boon for global welfare, but they do demonstrate what might be possible in future. (Tobacco is a common model organism for genetic-engineering research.)

As biologists Dean Price and Susan Howitt write in an accompanying News & Views (G.D.PriceandS.M.HowittNaturehttp://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature13749;2014): “The work is a milestone on the road to boosting plant efficiency. The advance can be likened to having a new engine block in place in a high-performance car engine — now we just need the turbocharger fitted and tuned.” Available in any colour you like, as long as it’s green.

Related links

Related links

Related links in Nature Research

Solar energy: Springtime for the artificial leaf 2014-Jun-04

Related external links

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Amped-up plants. Nature 513, 280 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1038/513280a

Download citation

Search

Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing