US and UK researchers genetically modify crops to better harness the sun

A team of researchers from the US and the UK have managed to genetically modify crops so that they are better at harnessing the power of the sun.

The trials on soybean plants achieved a yield increase of 20%.

Talking to the BBC, Lead researcher Professor Stephen Long, an agricultural scientist based at both the University of Illinois in the US and the University of Lancaster in the UK, said: “We’ve been looking at photosynthesis and why it might be inefficient for 30 years. There was huge scepticism that we could improve it, so showing that we can do this completely changes the ground and contributes hugely to our ability to increase global food supply.”

Photosynthesis is the process by which green plants and some other organisms use sunlight to synthesise nutrients from carbon dioxide and water in order to grow. In plants this generally involves the green pigment chlorophyll and generates oxygen as a by-product.

The scientists targeted a small part of the photosynthesis process when the plants were hit with very strong sunlight. The plants switch into a protective mode that releases excess energy as heat to avoid damage to their cells. Returning to their ‘normal’ mode takes time, but the scientists managed to reduce this, enabling the modified plants to gain more time for photosynthesis.

It is anticipated that genetically modified crops could be widely grown within a decade after the UK Government’s announcement in 2021 of relaxing the rules around genetic modification. Brexit has been cited as a factor in that decision, as there is much greater scepticism about GM foods in member states such as Austria and Hungary.

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