tobaccoScientists have made progress in accelerating plants’ conversion of carbon dioxide into sugar, a process that could one day lead to faster, more efficient food production.

According to Dean Price, a leading plant geneticist at the Austrian National University, the global population is growing at a rate that will soon outstrip the rate of global food production. In the next 35 years, he claims, humans will need to double their current food output to match projected population numbers.

This is why scientists have been searching for a way to create faster-growing plants.

Recently, scientists from the U.S. and UK have made headway by isolating an enzyme from blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria. The enzyme, known as rubisco, is what the algae uses to convert carbon dioxide into sugar.

Cyanobacteria’s rubisco works faster than land-based plants because it can differentiate between carbon dioxide and oxygen. If a plant grabs oxygen instead of CO2, it cannot convert it into sugar. For this reason, the enzyme in land-based plants is relatively slow and methodical. Cyanobacteria, on the other hand, deflects oxygen by housing its rubisco in a protective capsule.

By engineering the rubisco gene into the genome of tobacco plants (tobacco plants are ideal because their genome has been so thoroughly researched), scientists were able to speed up the conversion of carbon dioxide into sugar. The results of this experiment have been published in the journal Nature.

“Hearing the results of this experiment for the first time was definitely one of those ‘Eureka!’ moments you live for as a scientist,” said the project’s leader, Maureen Hanson, a plant geneticist at Cornell University.

“This is the first time that a plant has been created through genetic engineering to fix all of its carbon by a cyanobacterial enzyme,” Hanson says in a press release. “It is an important first step in creating plants with more efficient photosynthesis.”

But the experiment still has a long way to go before becoming a viable method of growing crops. The modified tobacco plants contain rubisco but not its protective capsule, so they need to be grown in labs with artificially high levels of CO2.

If the scientists manage to do that, they predict that their boosted plants could reduce the need for fertilizer and increase crop production by 35 to 60 percent.

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