Maybe photosynthesis can be improved.

That may sound like blasphemy but the easy solution to growing more food is teaching crop plants to concentrate carbon dioxide in their leaves. That could increase photosynthetic efficiency by 60 percent and yields by as much as 40 percent, according to a new study.

Obviously efficiency is not everything. An electric car is 90% efficient while a combustion car is only 25%, yet if you want to go up a hill you'd be crazy to think efficiency is what matters. Plant photosynthesis is a lowly 5 percent efficiency yet we would be ecstatic if solar panels could even come close to the solar power of plant life.

Plants know what they are doing, maybe they could just do it a little better using some science. A team used a computer model to simulate how adding genes from a type of photosynthetic algae known as cyanobacteria might influence photosynthetic efficiency in plants. Cyanobacteria contain small structures, called carboxysomes, which concentrate carbon dioxide at the site of photosynthesis.

"Photosynthesis is the most studied of all plant processes, so we really know this in great detail and can represent it well in silico," said University of Illinois plant biology professor Stephen Long, who led the study with postdoctoral researcher Justin McGrath. "We've modeled the whole system, and added all the components in a cyanobacterial system one at a time to our computer simulation to see if they give us an advantage."

They found that some of the carboxysome genes hindered, while others greatly enhanced photosynthetic efficiency in crop plants such as soybean, rice and cassava. For example, adding a gene for a bicarbonate transporter, which carries carbon dioxide across the carboxysome membrane, enhances photosynthesis by 6 percent.

"And if we put in about eight components of the carboxysome system, the model says that we could get a 60 percent increase in photosynthesis," Long said.

Modeling photosynthesis in crop plants has proven to be an efficient way to determine which kinds of genetic manipulations will be most fruitful. This prevents a lot of wasted time and money spent trying things in the laboratory that are doomed to fail.

The work is very exciting, but will take many years to implement, Long said.

"It will take about five years before we have our first test of concept in a model plant. And then, even if everything goes (according) to plan, it might be 15 or 20 years before we see this in any crop," he said.

"The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization predicts that we're going to need about 70 percent more primary foodstuffs by the middle of this century," Long said. "So obviously new innovations like this are needed to try and get there, especially since the approaches of the Green Revolution are now approaching their biological limits."

Justin M. McGrath, Stephen P. Long, 'Can the Cyanobacterial Carbon-Concentrating Mechanism Increase Photosynthesis in Crop Species? A Theoretical Analysis.' Plant Physiology DOI:10.1104/pp.113232611. Source: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign