Hacking leaves

Pipeline of transformation of leaf discs of tobacco (easily transformed and forms a closed canopy) with constructs for improved photosynthetic efficiency through regeneration on selective media, growth of the initial transformants to seed, and then testing of transgenes in replicated field plots. Credit: Stephen P. Long et al./Cell

Hacking is a positive activity aiming at knowing the inner working of a system to adapt it to specific needs. Over the years, particularly in Information Technology, it has taken a negative face, the one of disrupting in (mostly) an illicit way the working of a system by changing its instructions to serve a not intended purpose.

At the University of Illinois in cooperation with the University of Shanghai researchers have been working on hacking leaves. Today we have a very good and deep understanding of leaves metabolic processes, including the one that is providing energy to the plant: photosyntheses.

Photosyntheses is an amazing invention of Nature to convert solar energy into chemical energy, leveraging on very complex processes that today we can understand also thanks to quantum mechanics (which you have to use when you work with photons). What researchers noticed is that the Nature way of transforming light energy into chemical energy is not as efficient as it could be. We could (today) do better in certain aspects of the photosyntheses process.  And this is what researchers set out to do.

By simulating the photosyntheses process on supercomputer and tweaking it they found out that by changing some genes in maize and soia plants one could increase the energy transformation efficiency by 30%. Adding a few more genes it would be possible to have the leaves capture more of the Sun light spectrum (now they basically capture green wavelengths) thus transforming more light energy as well as being able to grow in areas with more limited sunlight.

This is not a scientific endeavour steered by the curiosity of researchers. It is actually a quite practical, and crucial, activity. It may be the answer to the increasing demand of food, for a population that by 2050 will have increased by 2 billion. We won't simply be able to feed 2 more billion people today.   
In the 1900 there were less than 2 billion people and many seeing the increase in population (it doubled in a hundred years) feared the impossibility of feeding the newborn. Technology came to rescue by improving the yield and the farmland areas decreasing at the same time the manpower needed.

Technology will need to lend a helping hand again to sustain population growth. And possibly unexpectedly ICT is a fundamental tool in this quest.

Author - Roberto Saracco

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