Plants are shorting themselves on yield—and have been for years. Photorespiration robs plants of up to 40% of their yield potential and researchers are out to shortcut that process and regain productivity. “We could feed up to 200 million additional people with the calories lost to photorespiration in the Midwestern U.S. each year,” said Donald Ort, Robert Emerson Professor of plant and crop sciences at Illinois’ Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology in a recent press release. “Reclaiming even a portion of these calories across the world would go a long way to meeting the 21st Century’s rapidly expanding food demands.” Photosynthesis relies on an enzyme called Rubisco to turn carbon dioxide and water into sugar that fuels plants, according to Science Daily. However, Rubisco doesn’t distinguish the difference between oxygen and carbon dioxide and ‘grabs’ oxygen 20% of the time.
When oxygen is gathered instead of carbon dioxide it’s plant-toxic and must be disposed. The plant uses photorespiration to get rid of that oxygen and expends a large amount of energy that could instead be used to add yield. Scientists are altering the route for photorespiration—instead of a complicated, time-consuming method they’re making it easier with new research efforts. It’s boosting plant growth by 40% and creating 50% larger stems in two years of replicated field studies. The team first tested this discovery in tobacco but is translating the findings to increase soybean, rice and other crop yields, too. It will likely be more than a decade before this discovery is in commercial crops.