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Tweaking how plants manage a crisis boosts photosynthesis

New way to help cope with scorching sunlight could lead to more bountiful crops

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2:45pm, November 17, 2016
tobacco leaves

SUNSHINE OVERLOAD  Colors show where tobacco leaves are wasting energy (blue, purple) by partially shutting down in response to bright light, and where they are running closer to full capacity (red, yellow). Shortening such shutdowns might make plants more productive.

Enhancing just three genes helps plants harvest more light, raising new hopes for developing crops that can keep up with food demands from a crowded planet.

Genetically engineered tobacco plants, chosen to test the concept, managed the unusual feat of growing 14 to 20 percent more mass — meaning more crop yield — than untweaked plants, says Krishna Niyogi of the University of California, Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The gains came from inserting different versions of three genes that control how quickly plants ramp back up to full energy-harvesting capacity after going into a protective mode to protect themselves from too-bright sunlight, researchers report in the Nov. 18 Science.

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