Essex team shines light on efforts to increase crop yield

PLANT researchers based in Colchester are undertaking a new study which could lead to major increases in crop yields.

The scientists, based at the University of Essex, are hoping to make the breakthrough by looking at the way crops harness energy from the sun after they were awarded grants totalling �800,000 towards the project.

Although food production has increased significantly over the past 50 years, it has been estimated the world needs to produce up to 70-100% more food to meet expected demand by 2050.

The team at Essex, led by Professor Christine Raines, has been awarded grants by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) to explore new approaches to improve crop yields for both food and fuel.

The first grant is one of five new research projects totalling �2million looking at how to overcome some of the fundamental limitations of photosynthesis - the process by which plants harvest energy from the sun. This research could lead to major increases in crop yields for food, bio energy and the production of renewable chemicals.

The projects will complement four funded last year via an ‘Ideas Lab’ in collaboration with the National Science Foundation in the USA. Together, the nine research projects span the whole photosynthetic pathway, from the shape of the crop canopy and the structure of individual leaves through to light capture at the molecular level and the production and storage of sugars.

At Essex, Professor Raines, Dr Tracy Lawson and Dr Uli Bechtold, will undertake a project to explore new approaches to improve photosynthesis in order to improve crops yields of food and fuel.

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Even a small change to the efficiency of photosynthesis could allow for considerably increased yields for food and bio energy crops.

“The importance of this work is highlighted by the need to provide both food and fuel for an ever-growing world population,” said Professor Raines.

“Although photosynthesis is the primary determinant of plant yield, it has never been used in breeding programmes and this work will begin to address this important, but overlooked, approach to develop higher yielding crop plants.”

Science Minister David Willetts said: “It’s great to see UK scientists contributing to such a valuable body of international research. If we can gain a better understanding of the scientific processes underlying food production, we are a significant step closer to being able to support an increasing global population in future.”