Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Plan B: boost photosynthesis.

Photosynthesis is an organism's way of producing food (if it can, like plants and algae, and several bacteria types) using carbon dioxide and sunlight. Along the way, plants produce oxygen, the gas humans and other organisms need to survive. Photosynthetic organisms, then, are both source of food and natural carbon dioxide scrubber. 

Despite learning about photosynthesis in school, I never bothered to understand it with such passion as the people working in the C4 Rice Project. See, the research areas that interest me tend to be closer to the rice eater sitting at the dining table than to clouds floating in the bright blue sky. 

But I digress...

Scientists from the C4 group are attempting what previously was probably a product of science fiction: to tinker with the photosynthetic processes in the rice plant and make them more efficient. During the IRRI Young Scientists Conference (November 8-9), a lot of the early-career researchers took to the stage to bring us, non-C4 scientists, up-to-date with the research they are working on about photosynthesis. Thankfully, most of them (if not all) started with slides differentiating the photosynthetic types in rice (C3) and in maize (C4). According to these researchers, C4 photosynthesis is much more efficient than C3, which is why this ambitious team of scientists are undergoing such a project.

Before a C4 rice plant can be made, a lot of obstacles need to be overcome or requirements to satisfy; among these are anatomy changes in the leaf and the addition or activation of several enzymes that will allow photosynthesis to become more efficient in rice. And based on the young scientists' presentations, the C4 group has certainly made progress in the various fronts of research.

Why do these scientists want rice to become more efficient photosynthetic machines anyway? 

According to the C4 Rice website, by boosting photosynthetic capacity of the rice grain, scientists can find a way to increase rice production under decreasing amounts of resources (land, water, fertilizer) and an ever increasing number of consumers. This C3-C4 transformation in rice is seen as an alternate route to the traditional way of improving rice yields: yield improvement in elite rice varieties are currently facing a road block. 

The C4 project is certainly right there at the tip of cutting-edge, almost-science-fiction research. Who knows, we might see rice panicles shooting from plants with leaves that look like corn someday.

We'll see.