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Plant Biology

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Bill Gates wants to hack photosynthesis

What: “Tuning up photosynthesis” a hybrid scientific-explainer-slash-music-video created by the Gates Foundation to popularize the idea plants can be engineered in ways that improve upon nature.

Who: This work is being pioneered by RIPE—the Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency project with ties to the University of Illinois and eight other national and international research institutions.

Why we care: Plants grow their own energy through the sunlight-driven process of photosynthesis. The more energy they convert, the faster they can grow. Modify that process and crop productivity could basically double. “We have been aware that it’s inefficient for a long time,” says Stephen Long, the director of RIPE in the video. “What there hasn’t been an awareness of is that we might be able to change that.”

If Long’s team can prove that with tobacco, which propagates quickly and is easy to run tests on, then they could eventually apply it to important crops like rice, maize, and cassava. Endow those edibles with supersize ability, and you’ve just turned a native species into a life-sustaining and commercial commodity for many people living in impoverished places within the developing world.

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Publication Date: 11/18/2019
Photo credits: Fast Company
Editor: Ben Paynter, senior writer at Fast Company