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Scientists aim to improve photosynthesis to increase food and fuel production

Published: 
29 March 2011

A University of Southampton scientist is participating in a new £6.11 million transatlantic research project to improve the process of photosynthesis.

Photosynthesis allows biological systems to convert sunlight into food and the source of all the fossil fuels we burn today. But although it is Nature's way of capturing energy from the sun in plants, algae and other organisms, photosynthesis has some fundamental limitations of efficiency.

Four research teams from the UK and the USA, one including Dr Tom Bibby from the University of Southampton, will now explore methods to overcome these limitations. This could lead to increasing the yield of important crops for food production or sustainable bioenergy. The research could possibly even lead to the blueprint to make a fully artificial leaf capable of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The funding has been awarded by the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the US National Science Foundation (NSF) in a pioneering programme designed to draw on knowledge from both sides of the Atlantic.

Tom says: "This is a new way of funding science, bringing people together from both the UK and USA who have expertise and interest in a particular area of research. It's great for the University of Southampton to be involved with this ambitious project."

Tom is part of the 'Plug and Play' team, which will investigate ways to harness the excess light energy that reaches photosynthetic organisms but cannot be used due to bottlenecks in natural photosynthesis.

Plug and Play, which has a £1.9 million share of the total funding, aims to transfer high energy electrons from a cyanobacterial cell, where there is excess energy that would otherwise be wasted as heat, to an adjacent cell which will be engineered to produce food or fuel products.

The other three research projects will focus on improving a reaction driven by an enzyme called RuBisCO, which is a widely recognised bottleneck in the photosynthesis pathway. By attempting to transfer parts from algae and bacteria into plants, the researchers hope to make the environment in the plants' cells around RuBisCO richer in carbon dioxide, which will allow photosynthesis to produce sugars more efficiently.

Professor Janet Allen, Director of Research at BBSRC, says: "The world faces significant challenges in the coming decades, and chief among these is producing enough sustainable and affordable food for a growing population and replacing diminishing fossil fuels. Even a small change to the efficiency of photosynthesis would make a huge impact on these problems.

"As these are global challenges it is apt that we are working across national and scientific boundaries to put together truly international and multidisciplinary research teams."

The four research projects have been funded by BBSRC and NSF following a multidisciplinary workshop held by the funders in September 2010. The workshop, called the Ideas Lab, enabled scientists from different disciplines and institutions in the UK and USA to explore ideas and potential projects before submitting them to BBSRC and NSF.

Notes for editors

  • The research project 'Plug and Play Photosynthesis for RuBisCO independent fuels' involves scientists from the University of Glasgow, Arizona State University, University of Southampton, Imperial College London, Penn State University, Michigan State University, Emory University School of Medicine. For details of the other three projects, go to www.bbsrc.ac.uk

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