14 October 2011

Getting our crops to meet global food challenge

Colchester Campus

Plant research

Plant researchers at Essex have been awarded grants totalling £800,000 to help tackle the challenge of feeding the world’s ever-growing population.

Food production may have increased significantly over the past 50 years, but it has been estimated the world needs to produce up to 70-100 per cent more food to meet expected demand by 2050.

The team in the Department of Biological Sciences, led by Professor Christine Raines, has been awarded grants by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) to explore new approaches to improve crop yields for both food and fuel.

The first grant is one of five new research projects totalling £2 million looking at how to overcome some of the fundamental limitations of photosynthesis - the process by which plants harvest energy from the sun. This research could lead to major increases in crop yields for food, bio energy and the production of renewable chemicals.

The projects will complement four funded last year via an 'Ideas Lab' in collaboration with the National Science Foundation in the USA. Together, the nine research projects span the whole photosynthetic pathway, from the shape of the crop canopy and the structure of individual leaves through to light capture at the molecular level and the production and storage of sugars.

At Essex, Professor Raines, Dr Tracy Lawson and Dr Uli Bechtold, will undertake a project to explore new approaches to improve photosynthesis in order to improve crops yields of food and fuel.

The world faces significant challenges in the coming decades, and chief among these are producing enough sustainable and affordable food for a growing population and replacing diminishing fossil fuels. Even a small change to the efficiency of photosynthesis could allow for considerably increased yields for food and bio energy crops and so could make a huge impact on these problems.

“The importance of this work is highlighted by the need to provide both food and fuel for an ever-growing world population,” explained Professor Raines. “Although photosynthesis is the primary determinant of plant yield it has never been used in breeding programmes and this work will begin to address this important, but overlooked, approach to develop higher yielding crop plants.”

Science Minister David Willetts said: "Food security is an important issue for governments and researchers worldwide, and it's great to see UK scientists contributing to such a valuable body of international research. If we can gain a better understanding of the scientific processes underlying food production, we are a significant step closer to being able to support an increasing global population in future."

The second grant awarded to the Essex team by the BBSRC is through the Crop Improvement Research Club (CIRC). This project is a collaboration between Essex and Rothamsted Research and aims to identify high yielding varieties of modern wheat, based on photosynthetic performance.


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