The world’s population is expected to reach 10 billion people by 2050. To be able to safely feed this many mouths requires a twofold increase in global crop yields. That means doubling our production in less than 30 years.
As if this wasn’t daunting enough, there’s also the issue of sustainability. Of the total 13 billion hectares of land on our planet, only 38 % is available for agricultural use. With the remainder being forested, developed, or not suitable for food production, increasing the amount of arable land would be extremely difficult – and unsustainable. Instead, what we need is more efficient, effective and productive agricultural methods.
“We need to do a better job of exploiting available resources in order to produce more food from the agricultural land we have,” says Tobias Erb, director and group research leader at the Max Planck Institute for Terrestrial Microbiology in Marburg, Germany.
This is where the EU-funded FutureAgriculture project comes in.
“Today, crops use natural photosynthesis to grow, a process that involves absorbing sunlight to get food from carbon dioxide (CO2) and water,” explains Erb, who also serves as the official project coordinator. “Unfortunately, this process isn’t efficient enough to sustainably produce the amount of food we need.”
To fill this gap, the FutureAgriculture project is spearheading a cross-European effort to increase agricultural yields by re-engineering the natural photosynthesis process. “Using synthetic biology to boost photosynthetic efficiency, we aim to enhance a plant’s ability to efficiently capture CO2, thus improving their biomass formation,” adds Erb.
Improving the photosynthesis process
To accomplish this, researchers took a multistep approach. “First, we analysed the limitations of natural photosynthesis,” explains Erb. “We then used a computationally guided approach to systematically search for new biological solutions capable of improving the amount of CO2 captured during photosynthesis.”
Back in the lab, researchers developed new-to-nature enzymes that were then put together with already existing enzymes to create new metabolic pathways for improved carbon conversion. “This allowed us to find – and build – completely new solutions that even nature hasn’t invented yet,” remarks Erb.
Taking this one step further, researchers succeeded in demonstrating that these pathways are active in living plants. More importantly, the project showed that these pathways can improve photosynthetic activity under certain conditions.
“This project significantly advanced the technology readiness of synthetic biological solutions,” notes Erb. “In just 5 years, we proved the feasibility of improving photosynthesis using synthetic biology.”
Ready to thrive in the new normal
According to Erb, FutureAgriculture will play an important role in helping society meet its increasing food production needs. “Natural photosynthesis is unable to cope with the changing demands of climate change, particularly the higher temperatures and severe droughts caused by increasing CO2 levels,” he says.
Erb goes on to say that although more tests are needed, he is confident that plants equipped with FutureAgriculture’s synthetic pathways will be able to adapt – and thrive – in this new normal.
“Theoretically, our design should be able to improve photosynthetic yield by up to 30 %,” he concludes. “This just goes to show what science can accomplish when Europe’s best researchers work together and benefit from the EU’s excellent funding mechanisms.”