Exploiting biodiversity to boost the efficiency of photosynthesis for better crops

Plant scientists and crop breeders receive 8.6 million euro from the Horizon 2020 research programme to improve future crops through the CAPITALISE project. Among the participants from EU countries, the UK, Israel and Ethiopia, are Dutch scientist from Wageningen University and the group of Biophysics of Photosynthesis of VU Amsterdam, led by professor Roberta Croce. The target is to improve photosynthesis: to increase the efficiency of how plants use light energy to convert carbon dioxide and water into sugars to boost yields in key crops.

07/03/2020 | 2:28 PM

The efficiency of photosynthesis in crop plants is well below the theoretical maximum for the process. This implies there is scope for improving this engine of agricultural productivity.  Plant scientists have discovered that improving photosynthetic traits to increase the efficiency of photosynthesis can results in significant increases in plant productivity. 

Addressing the expected food crisis
The CAPITALISE crop research project has been granted 8.6 million euros from the EU Research and Innovation programme Horizon 2020, to exploit ground-breaking technology to radically increase crop yields in Europe and beyond. This is part of a new Green Revolution to address the expected future food crisis. By 2050 the world population is expected to rise above 9 billion people, food security experts estimate an increase of 110 percent in current crop productivity is needed. But current yield improvements are only around 1 percent per year, and the productivity increase of some key crops, including wheat and rice, has stalled in some major production areas. Despite clever crop breeding programmes and agricultural practices, new innovations are needed now.

New plant breeding tools
Wageningen University is in the lead of the CAPITALISE project, which is driving an international multidisciplinary team of plant breeding companies, a phenotyping technology developer and academic plant scientists to develop high yielding ‘Climate Smart’ crops. The team is made up of 19 research organisations and companies, from across Europe, the UK, Israel, and Ethiopia. It will develop new plant breeding tools based on the selected strategies to increase the rate of CO2-fixation into sugars and improve response time of photosynthesis and optimise the profile of crop canopy light absorption. The project will improve photosynthesis by identifying and using naturally occurring variation for these traits in three representative crop plants: tomato, barley and maize.  

Producing high yielding non-GM crops 
Jeremy Harbinson, CAPITALISE project coordinator explains: “The natural variation seen across diverse crop plant species has enormous potential to allow us to increase photosynthesis.  Modern non-genetically modified plant breeding methods will be used to introduce these favourable traits identified in crop species and their near-relatives into crop plants, to produce high yielding non-GM crops.”  

How to capture and use light energy
The group of Biophysics of Photosynthesis of Prof. Roberta Croce will focus on tuning leaf chlorophyll content.  In nature, plants compete for the resources they need to live and grow, this includes light. Plant leaves both trap the light needed for their own photosynthesis, and also deprive competitor plants of light through shading. This means that light distribution in a plant canopy is sub-optimal for photosynthesis. Roberta Croce explains: “We will focus on optimizing light distribution in a canopy by adjusting leaf chlorophyll levels and reducing shading effects, to improve the efficiency of how plants capture and use light energy. What is very exciting for me is that this large and multidisciplinary consortium will permit us to directly apply results coming from basic research to the improvement of crop productivity in the field.”