Researchers at Wageningen University are studying ways to reduce the required soil area of crops.
Researchers at Wageningen University & Research (WUR) in the Netherlands have discovered that some plants make better use of light for their growth than others. By using available knowledge on the natural genetic variations in this photosynthesis process, plant breeders may be able to develop crops that use soil, water and nutrients more efficiently.
“Photosynthesis has existed for some two million years, which is why scientists assumed it was fully developed and plants were operating at their maximum efficiency level,” states Mark Aarts, professor of Plant Genetics, in his weblog on the WUR website.
Some plants make better use of sunlight than others
According to Aarts, this is far from the truth. Plants appear to use no more than between 0.5 and 1 per cent of the available sunlight. Some plants, however, such as grey mustard (Hirschfeldia incana) make far better use of the sun than others.
Aarts and his colleagues have studied thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana), an essential subject in many plant sciences studies. The Wageningen scientists managed to replace the chloroplast from one thale cress plant with that of another, without any change to the chromosomes’ genetic material.
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WUR's so-called Phenovator produces very precise measurements of the photosynthesis of 1,440 plants several times a day. - Photo: Tom Theeuwen, WUR
Plants with improved growth
Thanks to this new method, researchers can compare original plants with plants that have ‘new’ chloroplasts. Some of the new combinations yield plants with improved growth compared to the original combinations.
“This new insight allows breeders to develop crops that provide a higher yield,” says Aarts. We believe we may be able to breed plants capable of using up to one and a half per cent of the available sunlight instead of the current half per cent. That is a tremendous improvement.”
Increase knowledge of photosynthesis
To increase their knowledge of photosynthesis, Wageningen researchers carry out different studies. Aarts is involved in an EU photosynthesis project studying genetic variation in millet, tomato and maize. “We expect to find significant differences, just as in the thale cress.”
Attuning plants to light
Other research focuses on attuning plants to the light. When there is abundant sunlight available, part of it is not used for photosynthesis but radiates as warmth in a process called non-photochemical quenching, Aarts explains. “A beneficial process to prevent sunlight from damaging the photosynthesis proteins. But on partially cloudy days, plants tend to err on the side of caution and use this ability to lower the rate of photosynthesis. This causes the process of photosynthesis to be far less efficient than it could be.”
How exactly does this process work, what proteins are involved, and where does the energy go? Aarts’ colleagues are trying to find answers to these questions through extensive research.