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Photorespiration is required in C3 plants to metabolize toxic glycolate formed when ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase-oxygenase oxygenates rather than carboxylates ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate. Depending on growing temperatures, photorespiration can reduce yields by 20 to 50% in C3 crops. Inspired by earlier work, we installed into tobacco chloroplasts synthetic glycolate metabolic pathways that are thought to be more efficient than the native pathway. Flux through the synthetic pathways was maximized by inhibiting glycolate export from the chloroplast. The synthetic pathways tested improved photosynthetic quantum yield by 20%. Numerous homozygous transgenic lines increased biomass productivity by >40% in replicated field trials. These results show that engineering alternative glycolate metabolic pathways into crop chloroplasts while inhibiting glycolate export into the native pathway can drive increases in C3 crop yield under agricultural field conditions.

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How much can we improve on Nature? Fixing defective proteins and pathways is one thing, but in those cases we’re trying to get back to what the function should be (and what it is in healthy organisms). But what about “better than healthy”?...