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New insights about photosynthesis could improve crop yields

An international effort called Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency (RIPE) aims to transform crops’ ability to turn sunlight and carbon dioxide into higher yields.

To achieve this, scientists are analyzing thousands of plants to find out what tweaks to the plant’s structure or its cellular machinery could increase production. University of Illinois researchers have revealed a new approach to estimate the photosynthetic capacity of crops to pinpoint these top-performing traits and speed up the screening process.

Measuring canopy photosynthesis

“Photosynthesis is the entry point for carbon dioxide to become all the things that allow plants to grow, but measuring canopy photosynthesis is really difficult,” said Carl Bernacchi, a Research Plant Physiologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, who is based at Illinois’ Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology.

“Most methods are time-consuming and only measure a single leaf when it’s the function of all leaves on all plants that really matters in agriculture.”

Hyperspectral camera for scanning crops and a spectrometer

Bernacchi’s team uses two spectral instruments simultaneously – a hyperspectral camera for scanning crops and a spectrometer used to record very detailed information about sunlight – to quickly measure a signal called Solar Induced Fluorescence (SIF) that is emitted by plants when they become ‘energy-excited’ during photosynthesis.

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University of Illinois researchers using cameras to screen entire research plots for the top-performing plant traits. - Photo: RIPE
University of Illinois researchers using cameras to screen entire research plots for the top-performing plant traits. - Photo: RIPE

Improving crop yields

With this SIF signal, the team says they gain critical insights about photosynthesis that could ultimately lead to improving crop yields. The study suggests that much cheaper cameras could be used now that its known what bands of light are needed.

These tools could speed up progress by orders of magnitude, said Katherine Meacham-Hensold, a postdoctoral researcher at Illinois. “This technology is game-changing for researchers who are refining photosynthesis as a means to help realise the yields that we will need to feed humanity this century.”

RIPE

Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency (RIPE) is an international research project that is improving photosynthesis to equip farmers worldwide with higher-yielding crops.

Also read: Faster plant growth through better photosynthesis

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