Breakthrough in measuring plant improvements to help farmers boost food production

  • Date

    Fri 17 May 19

field trials

An international team including scientists at the University of Essex is using advanced tools to develop crops that give farmers more options for sustainably producing more food on less land.

To do this, thousands of plant prototypes must be carefully analysed to figure out which genetic tweaks work best.

In a special issue of the journal Remote Sensing of Environment, scientists have shown a new technology can more quickly scan an entire field of plants to capture improvements in their natural capacity to harvest energy from the sun.

“This method allows us to measure improvements we have engineered in a plant’s photosynthesis machinery in about ten seconds, compared to the traditional method that takes up 30 minutes,” explained Katherine Meacham-Hensold, from the University of Illinois, who led this work for a research project called Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency (RIPE). “That’s a major advance because it allows our team to analyse an enormous amount of genetic material to efficiently pinpoint traits that could greatly improve crop performance.”

RIPE is led by Illinois in partnership with several organisations including the University of Essex, the Australian National University, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Lancaster University and the University of California, Berkeley.

The research project is engineering staple food crops to more efficiently turn the sun’s energy into food to sustainably increase worldwide food productivity, with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the US Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, and the UK’s Department for International Development.

The traditional method for assessing photosynthesis analyses the exchange of gases through the leaf; it provides a huge amount of information, but it takes 30 minutes to measure each leaf. A faster, or “higher-throughput” method, called spectral analysis, analyses the light that is reflected back from leaves to predict photosynthetic capacity in as little as ten seconds.

RIPE executive committee member Christine Raines, a professor of plant molecular physiology at Essex, whose engineered crops were analysed with the technique, said: “While there are still hurdles ahead, spectral analysis is a game-changing technique that can be used to assess a variety of photosynthetic improvements to single out the changes that are most likely to substantially, and sustainably, increase crop yields.

“These tools can help us speed up our efforts to develop high-yielding crops for farmers working to help feed the world.”