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Researchers from Cornell University have revitalized an ancient version of the enzyme Rubisco in the hope of boosting photosynthesis in plants helping us to grow more food to help tackle the rapidly growing population and climate change.
The Global Agriculture Challenge
The growing amount of CO2 released into the sky makes the climate much drier and hotter. If the vegetation people rely on for food doesn’t adapt to the warmer conditions, there could be a massive issue trying to feed a rapidly growing world population.
A climate scientist at NASA, Jonas Jägermeyr, said, “Under even the most optimistic climate change situations, where people sanction impressive efforts to limit our global temperature rise, agriculture globally is facing a new climate reality.”
In other words, we have no choice but to adapt.
Improving the Rubisco Enzyme
Plants convert water, light, and CO2 into food through the process of photosynthesis. By formulating photosynthesis to be more effective, researchers could improve the vegetation to grow more powerful yields, which would result in much more food on the same piece of land.
One way to do this is by allowing the Rubisco enzyme to do its job better.
This enzyme is useful for extracting carbon dioxide from the air and into the plant. However, as it is inefficient at this process, it works too slowly and often accidentally grabs oxygen molecules in addition to CO2.
“If you are designing [Rubisco], it can be looked at as an engineering failure,” said Sabeeha Merchant, a UCLA biochemist.
An Ancient Enzyme
To improve Rubisco, the Cornell researchers investigated the past, and they sequenced Rubisco genes from today’s plants to make an evolutionary tree of this enzyme. It allowed researchers to predict what the enzymes looked like 25 million years ago.
Carbon dioxide levels were approximately 500-800 parts per million (ppm) during that era. Today levels are at 420 ppm. For hundreds of thousands of years, levels were about 300 ppm before the 20th century.
Today’s plants that contain Rubisco enzymes evolved to stabilize in an environment with much less CO2 than what they were used to. So, in theory, trying to reverse engineer the ancient Rubisco enzyme that had evolved in a lot higher CO2 levels may speed up photosynthesis.
CRISPR Rubisco Enzyme
By altering today’s vegetation to create the more promising versions of Rubisco, the scientists hope to amplify their growth.
Hanson explained, “The next step is to alter the genes for today’s Rubisco enzyme within tobacco using ancestral sequences with CRISPR [gene-editing] technology, then we will measure it to see how it affects biomass production.”
Tobacco is one of the most popular plants to test as it’s leafy like many primary crops, proliferates, and can be modified easily.