Bill Gates: Improving Photosynthesis Can Solve World Hunger
Though we may be experts at ignoring it with our #firstworldproblems, the world hunger epidemic is not going away. The UN projects that worldwide agricultural yields must increase by 50 percent between now and 2050 in order to keep feeding our steadily growing population. That number that doesn't even take climate change into account. Since plants thrive on carbon dioxide, hot days mean smaller crop yields.
Bill and Melinda Gates seek to curb this with their RIPE project, which proved for the first time last year that crop yields in the field by engineering artificial photosynthesis.
Photosynthesis, the process by which plants convert carbon dioxide and water into carbohydrates, allows them to simultaneously feed themselves and emit enough oxygen for us to breathe. Artifical photosynthesis hopes to use sunlight to split river and ocean water into hydrogen, oxygen and carbon molecules.
"If it works it would be magical," Bill Gates told Reuters, "because with liquids you don't have the intermittency problem batteries. You can put the liquid into a big tank and burn it whenever you want."
But world hunger remains the greatest opportunity for artificial photosynthesis to change things. By increasing the expression levels of three genes involved in processing light, RIPE improved tobacco yields by 20 percent. Tobacco won't feed the world, of course, but the plant is an ideal specimen for experimentation because of its relatively simple chemical structure.
Despite the fact that we have a solid understanding of the 160-step biochemical process that makes up photosynthesis, the process's potential remains untapped. Plants convert less than 5 percent of sunlight energy into biomass, and an even smaller part of that actually makes up the plants that we eat. Fertilizers, pesticides and breeding have increased our yields significantly, but with an ever-expanding world, those numbers are about to level off.
Working with the cassava plant at the University of Illinois, postdoc Amanda de Souza's work with artificial photosynthesis has seen the delicate roots of baby cassava can grow to be a foot long and four inches in diameter, all with the help of artificial sunlight. She grows the embryos using tissue from the bud of a full-grown plant-a callus-which can be infected with bacteria that carries the genes capable of producing light. Though only a few cells actually take to the genes, those that do are then fed hormones that push them to grow. This process takes eight to 10 months.
In other recent agricultural science news, China plans to use the dark side of the moon for farming, and MIT has developed glowing plants. What an age we live in.