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A Synthetic Biology Approach to Improve Photosynthesis

Published: Friday, May 16, 2014
Last Updated: Friday, May 16, 2014
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Assembling a compartment inside chloroplasts of flowering plants has the potential to improve the efficiency of photosynthesis.

Plants, algae and bacteria capture light energy from the sun and transform it into chemical energy by the process named photosynthesis. To ensure food security in the future, yields of crops must continually be increased to keep pace with the world population.

Improving the photosynthetic rate is one strategy to improve plant productivity. Rothamsted Research scientists strategically funded by the BBSRC and in collaboration with colleagues at Cornell University funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation have used synthetic biology approaches to demonstrate for the first time that micro-compartments made up of proteins originating in bacteria can be assembled in the chloroplasts of flowering plants.

These findings represent important progress toward the goal of making plants more efficient at fixing carbon dioxide from the air into molecules that can be used by the plant for growth. The study has been published in The Plant Journal.

Dr Alessandro Occhialini, Rothamsted Research scientist applied sophisticated microscope techniques to observe the assembly of the compartment in plant chloroplasts. "I was thrilled to see small round or oval bodies in chloroplasts several days after I infiltrated bacterial genes into the leaves."

In order to engineer the bacterial genes to work properly in plants, postdoctoral fellow Dr. Myat Lin at Cornell used recombinant DNA methods to connect the bacterial DNA to plant DNA sequences so that several bacterial proteins could be produced simultaneously in chloroplasts and spontaneously assemble into small compartments.

Dr. Lin commented, "Being a part of a project with such a big goal to improve photosynthesis has been tremendously rewarding. While more work is ahead, we certainly have a very promising start."

Professor Maureen Hanson, lead scientist at Cornell University said: "We are delighted with the encouraging results from our collaboration with the Rothamsted Research group, whose expertise in photosynthesis and electron microscopy complements our capabilities in genetic engineering."

Professor Martin Parry, lead scientist at Rothamsted Research, said: "We are truly excited about the findings of this study. Improving photosynthetic rate in crop plants has been scientifically challenging and the developments in the areas of synthetic biology and metabolic engineering enable us to make significant progress. It is important that we explore all available tools to us in order to ensure food and fuel security in the future".

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