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Boost for food crisis research

Plant scientists at the Research School of Biology (RSB), part of the ANU College of Medicine, Biology & Environment, have been awarded up to $7 million to add their scientific expertise to a new Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grant.

The five-year project aims to enhance photosynthetic efficiency in crop plants to tackle the looming global food crisis. It is led by the University of Illinois, and will see RSB researchers working alongside the Universities of Essex, California Berkeley, Louisiana State, Shanghai and Rothamsted Research.

The international team will take a seven-pronged approach to overcoming the limitations of photosynthetic mechanisms in C3 plants, which make up the majority of crop plants on Earth.

In C3 photosynthesis, an enzyme called Rubisco sits in the plant’s chloroplast cells, converting sunlight and carbon dioxide (CO2) into sugars to fuel growth. Rubisco has long been known to be inefficient, requiring a higher concentration of CO2 than is available in the air. However, simple plants, such as algae and cyanobacteria, have overcome Rubisco’s inefficiencies by concentrating CO2 in their photosynthetic cells. This allows Rubisco to operate under optimum CO2 conditions.

RSB will play a significant role in two of the initiative’s seven innovative projects. Professor Murray Badger, head of RSB’s Plant Science Division, will lead a project to boost CO2 levels in rice chloroplasts by transferring bicarbonate transporters from algae and cyanobacteria into plants.

Professor Badger said “these bicarbonate transporters actively carry CO2 into the photosynthetic cells and function as a turbocharger which force feeds CO2 to Rubisco. We think this will result in greater growth rates and higher crop yields”.

In a related project, RSB will play a collaborative role with Rothamsted Research in transplanting better plant Rubiscos into crop plants. More efficient Rubiscos will be identified from natural species variation with a view to replacing the old Rubisco with a more ‘athletic’ version.

These projects align with the research strengths of the Plant Sciences Division at RSB – a world recognised strength in photosynthesis research.

“RSB is proud to be involved in this project and be given the opportunity to leverage the investments we have made in basic photosynthesis research to contribute to a new green revolution. It fits well with our aims to translate our fundamental knowledge of this essential process into real advances in increasing crop yields for world food and energy production,” said Professor Badger.

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