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Modified tobacco (left) vs unmodified plant (right). Credit: RIPE.

Modified tobacco (left) vs unmodified plant (right). Credit: RIPE.

Over the course of two years, the research team tested these roadmaps in 1,700 plants until they found the most optimized version. The study only involved tobacco plants, a model organism in genetic studies because it is easier to engineer. The modifications can be applied to any other photosynthetic plant, nevertheless.

The researchers found that the engineered tobacco grew faster, taller, and produced 40% more biomass than unmodified plants. Unlike previous photorespiration studies, South and colleagues tested their work in the field, in real-world agronomic conditions.

It might take another decade, however, before the biotech can be applied at scale to food crops and achieves regulatory approval. Meanwhile, the researchers are performing greenhouse experiments with modified potatoes, and plan on doing similar tests with soybean and rice.

“We could feed up to 200 million additional people with the calories lost to photorespiration in the Midwestern U.S. each year,” said principal investigator Donald Ort, a professor of Plant Science and Crop Sciences at Illinois’ Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology. “Reclaiming even a portion of these calories across the world would go a long way to meeting the 21st Century’s rapidly expanding food demands—driven by population growth and more affluent high-calorie diets.”

The findings were reported in the journal Science.