20 October 2015

Plant science group, researching how to improve photosynthesis to increase crop yields, relocates to Lancaster

Improving the efficiency of photosynthesis - the way crops turn carbon dioxide in our atmosphere into something we can eat - may seem ambitious.

But for Professor Martin Parry, until recently acting director of the world’s oldest agricultural research station, it offers the best opportunity for producing the scale of change in crop yield that we need to feed a growing global population in a changing world climate.

“We are desperately keen to increase yields of our crops: photosynthesis is the best target for this, and the most amenable to improvement,” said Martin, who moved to Lancaster University from Rothamsted Research, bringing with him a strong group of four talented researchers to form The Photosynthesis Team.

It was at Rothamsted that his long “love affair” with Rubisco, the enzyme responsible for CO2 fixation, began. RuBisCO is the most common enzyme on the planet, and makes photosynthesis possible. But it has its shortcomings.

“It is very slow and it is also promiscuous - it reacts not only with carbon but also with oxygen and it makes mistakes, producing compounds that block its activity.”

“The reaction with oxygen is undesirable as it decreases productivity. This undesirable reaction happens more at high temperature so it is a bigger problem in warm environments than cold ones and the losses to crops are much bigger in Africa that in the UK.”

Martin and his team have brought with them a major research project with the international Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Ef´Čüciency (RIPE) project, led by the University of Illinois and supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

“Then, in our first week here, we managed to secure some extra funding from the International Wheat Yield Partnership representing additional investment in research to improve wheat yields.”

The funding will support three linked projects, and will involve Dr Elizabete Carmo-Silva, who has also moved from Rothamsted, and Professor Ian Dodd, who is already at Lancaster, as well as Martin.  Wheat is one of the world’s most important crops, providing over 20% of the calories and protein consumed by humans globally.

After 40 years working at a specialised research centre, why did Martin make the move to a university, and why to Lancaster?

“I saw great opportunities at the Lancaster Environment Centre.  I want to contribute to a bigger programme of crop integrated research: there is not only excellent science here, but also the opportunity to collaborate with experts in social science, environmental management as well as at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.

Martin’s Portuguese colleague, Elizabete, relishes the opportunity to pass on her passion for plants to a younger generation.

“I had some amazing professors as an undergraduate. I remember a Professor who showed us a poem by a Portuguese writer about how plants are sessile - stationary - and so they need to face everything that comes their way, while we as human beings can run away. That caught my imagination.”

“I hope I will make a contribution to improve crop yields through my research: the biology fascinates me and I want to see it have an impact in the world. Moving to Lancaster and becoming a Lecturer in Plant Sciences for Food Security there is an additional impact to train the next generation of plant scientists.”

Martin has bold ambitions for what he wants to achieve as head of The Photosynthesis Team.

“I would like to be able to double the yield of wheat, though that is very ambitious and is unlikely to happen within the next ten years. My realistic goal here is to build a collaborative group that is world class and a key player on the world stage.”

The other members of the Photosynthesis Team are: post-doctoral researcher, Dr Doug Orr; technician André Alcântara and PhD student João Pennacchi.