While some may not even know the relevance of the word photosynthesis, most people are conscious of its importance without necessarily understanding any of the processes involved.

But no matter how little or much any individual knows about the process, the fact is that it is ultimately responsible for producing all our food, whether land- or marine-based.

Photosynthesis is the process of converting carbon dioxide and water into sugars that fuel a plant's growth. It is powered by sunlight, which provides the natural energy to drive the multistage chemical process.

Inefficient process

While the chemical process has been understood for a long time, it is also thought to be a relatively inefficient process.

For this reason, it has long been the subject matter of intricate research to try to enhance its efficiency. A more efficient process should produce more sugars during a plant’s life and, theoretically, enhance crop yields.

Because there are so many different biochemical pathways involved in the process. Most research teams focus on individual components where they believe they can make progress, but such progress has been very slow to date.

But even if potential improvements can be identified and developed, they are unlikely to be practically beneficial unless they can show improvement in the field.

Tackling sunlight protection

Many researchers continue to tackle the inefficiencies of photosynthesis so, I noted with interest that one group appears to have been successful.

The group, involving researchers from the UK and the US, tackled a particular issue affecting photosynthesis efficiency in soya beans.

While that crop may not be directly relevant to us here in Ireland, the improved photosynthesis pathway produced in soya bean plants is a breakthrough in that the improved photosynthesis pathway subsequently resulted in a 20% yield improvement in the field.

The failure of so many previous attempts to enhance the efficiency of photosynthesis makes this success particularly important.

It paves the way for further research and success in the knowledge that it can be done, according to lead researcher Prof Stephen Long, who is associated with both the University of Illinois and the University of Lancaster.

An important part of this research is that it was proven to deliver in the field

The research group tackled just one element of photosynthetic inefficiency. Many crops are known to have a type of switching mechanism which operates in very bright sunlight – perhaps more applicable to other countries than here.

In such conditions, plants go into a protective mode and in this state, they release the excess energy produced as heat to avoid damage to its cells.

Flicking the switch

This remains important and when conditions change, the protective mode switches off again. The problem is that the switching back process is quite slow in comparison to the switching on mechanism.

The group addressed this issue knowing that it takes several minutes for a plant to switch out of protective mode and back into fully productive growth mode. This means lost photosynthetic opportunity and yield potential.

Basically, the scientists altered the genes responsible for this function, which act to protect the plant, to allow the soya plants to switch back more quickly to full photosynthesis.

By decreasing the time in protective mode, the modified plants had more time for photosynthesis. Ultimately, this is what produced the 20% yield increase.

Delivered in the field

An important part of this research is that it was proven to deliver in the field. This was critical in order to differentiate between a theoretical improvement and one which can actually deliver increased yield.

Professor Long commented that the 20% yield improvement found in their research is much greater than the annual improvements created through conventional plant breeding.

The professor hopes that the benefits generated in soya beans can now be replicated in other food crops, such as wheat, maize and rice.

He added that he expects that crops with this improved trait may be commercially available in the US within 10 years.