Gates Foundation gives UI $25 million for photosynthesis research

URBANA — In what has been described as a "game-changing" grant, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded the University of Illinois a five-year, $25 million grant to fund photosynthesis-focused research that could address global food security challenges in the future.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that by 2050 the yields of staple crops around the world will have to increase by 70 percent in order to meet growing food demand, said Stephen Long, UI professor of crop sciences.

"There is a concern there could be real starvation in the world if something isn't done," Long said.

The grant provides an opportunity to find out if research into photosynthetic efficiency can offer a solution to the threat of starvation in developing countries in southeast Asia and Africa. Long will lead the project called Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency, or RIPE, and it will be based at the UI's Institute for Genomic Biology.

The researchers will examine how they can optimize the process of photosynthesis to make it more efficient, building on research already conducted in this area. According to Long, scientists have identified a practice of inserting certain proteins into the photosynthetic process that could do just that.

"We've constructed a theoretical framework on how to start to improve the photosynthesis of crops and moved on to some transgenic approaches that have proved fruitful," Long said.

They've worked with computer simulation models and tested the process in tobacco (a crop he said is easy to work with). And they will apply the process to food crops like rice and casava, two staple crops grown by farmers in southeast Asia and Africa.

They're also investigating how the photosynthesis process can benefit from more efficient pathways that exist in other organisms and if those pathways can be transferred into crops.

The big question is, if the photosynthesis process can be made 10 percent or 20 percent or more efficient, will that translate to higher yields?

"That's what we will test," Long said.

Long has assembled a team of six professors at the UI, including Associate Director Don Ort, a UI professor in plant physiology who also leads the "Genomic Ecology of Global Change" research theme at the Institute for Genomic Biology. Those involved at the UI come from subject areas such as crop sciences and plant biology as well as civil and environmental engineering because the project also looks at improving water-use efficiency, Long said.

On the project the UI will partner with international institutions including the Rothamsted Research and the University of Essex in England and Australian National University, where researchers have looked at algae's efficient photosynthesis process and if that process can be transferred to higher plants.

Also involved is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service, including the Champaign office, where a group of scientists work on how sunlight is distributed to leaves other than those at the top of the plant, Long said.

"Business-as-usual crop development in the face of accelerating agricultural demand and the challenges of rapid global change will not get the job done," said Ort in a released statement. "This award invests in unique strengths at Illinois as well as at our collaborating institutions and holds exceptional promise for broad impact outcomes," he said.

During the "Green Revolution," which began around the mid-20th century, yields of commodity crops such as wheat increased exponentially through advances in technology. But those gains have since contracted to much lower percentages, Long said.

Long called the grant "game-changing" and "very significant to us at Illinois and globally" because the project will be the first major attempt to find out if improving photosynthetic efficiency can provide a real avenue for increasing crop yields.

Researchers should know at the end of five years "whether these changes work and if so, is that valuable to incorporate into breeding programs?" Long said.

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