(New Yorker) Creating a Better Leaf–Could tinkering with photosynthesis prevent a global food crisis?

The more that was discovered about the intricacies of photosynthesis, the more was revealed about its inefficiency. The comparison is often made to photovoltaic cells. Those on the market today convert about twenty per cent of the sunlight that strikes them into electricity, and, in labs, researchers have achieved rates of almost fifty per cent. Plants convert only about one per cent of the sunlight that hits them into growth. In the case of crop plants, on average only about half of one per cent of the light is converted into energy that people can use. The contrast isn’t really fair to biology, since plants construct themselves, whereas P.V. cells have to be manufactured with energy from another source. Plants also store their own energy, while P.V. cells require separate batteries for that. Still, researchers who have tried to make apples-to-apples (or silicon-to-carbon) calculations have concluded that plants come out the losers.

[Stephen] Long went on to get a Ph.D., and then took a teaching job at the University of Essex, on England’s east coast. He became convinced that photosynthesis’s inefficiency presented an opportunity. If the process could be streamlined, plants that had spent millennia just chugging along could become champions. For agriculture, the implications were profound. Potentially, new crop varieties could be created that could produce more with less.

“All of our food, directly or indirectly, comes from the process of photosynthesis,” Long told me. “And we know that even our very best crops are only achieving a fraction of photosynthesis’s theoretical efficiency. So, if we can work out how to improve photosynthesis, we can boost yields. We won’t have to go on destroying yet more land for crops—we can try to produce more on the land we’re already using.”

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