John's World: Univ. of Illinois Hacked Photosynthesis, Impact on Ag

12619 John's World
A major breakthrough in bioengineering could have a big impact on agriculture. John Phipps explains in John's World. ( Farm Journal )

Recently researchers at the University of Illinois announced what I think is a startling breakthrough in bioengineering. The best way to explain it is they hacked photosynthesis. I’m sure this helpful diagram will make it all clear, as it did for me.

It seems plants are not particularly efficient in how they take in CO2 for their manufacturing process, and by gene editing, researchers have managed to improve the process, increasing plant biomass by 40 percent.

The experiments are being done on tobacco plants and will be expanded to include food plants like soybeans and chickpeas, which like tobacco are relatively easier to genetically manipulate. The key is a protein improbably called Rubisco, a humorous nickname for an impossibly long molecular name. Two things about this discovery I think bear watching.

First, while we’re still a long way – perhaps a decade – from seeing this type of performance duplicated in a major crop, ponder what even a 20% yield increase would mean to the supply curve for soybeans, for example. What the heck would we do with that many beans if global trade has shifted away from us? A production advantage of that magnitude would also seriously disrupt the market for seed.

Because the second factor is the patent for this technology would be held by the USDA, not a private company. Heck, you might even be able to save seed, in the case of soybeans, just like we used to do with public varieties. If the benefits of the yield advantage outweigh the value of herbicide resistance, it could upend the seed industry. Add in the recent announcement of a new mode of action for conventional herbicides – something few of us expected – and it might be possible someday to forego commercial herbicide resistant varieties, and their eye-watering seed costs.

It’s a nice picture of the future to dream about on cold, dreary winter days. And it could happen.