$13 million boost for science tackling food crop security

The RIPE team at Lancaster. L-R Dr Emmanuel Gonzalez Escobar, Dr Samuel Taylor, Prof Martin Parry, Dr Elizabete Carmo-Silva, Dr Shaun Nielsen.
The RIPE team at Lancaster. L-R Dr Emmanuel Gonzalez Escobar, Dr Samuel Taylor, Prof Martin Parry, Dr Elizabete Carmo-Silva, Dr Shaun Nielsen.

Lancaster University is to take forward research aimed at enhancing the productivity and yields of key staple food crops globally, thanks to a new $13 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Led by the University of Illinois , the work builds on a five-year, $45 million investment made in 2017 by the Gates Foundation, the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, and the U.K. Government's Department for International Development.

The Lancaster team, led by Prof Martin Parry and Dr Elizabete Carmo-Silva and with researchers Dr Samuel Taylor, Dr Douglas Orr, Dr Rhiannon Page, Dr Emmanuel Escobar and Dr Shaun Nielsen, will receive a $1 million share of this second phase of the grant, bringing the University’s total share of the RIPE investment to $2.6 million.

The grant will enable the project, Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency (RIPE), to add resources and personnel and accelerate the transfer of its successes to food crops such as soybeans, rice, cassava, and cowpea.

The RIPE project is focused on providing farmers - particularly those in the world's poorest countries - with seeds that result in substantially greater crop yields without requiring substantially greater inputs of fertilizer and water.

To date, the project has used virtual models to ‘tweak’ the photosynthesis process and pinpoint the best opportunities for boosting crop productivity.

The additional funding from the Gates Foundation will be used to test the model's predictions and translate yield-boosting technologies to food crops more quickly.

At Lancaster, we combine knowledge and facilities to carry out detailed studies of the key photosynthetic enzyme Rubisco. Professor Parry said: “Rubisco catalyses the assimilation of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into sugars: it is the portal through which inorganic carbon dioxide passes to be integrated with living systems. Rubisco is essential to fuelling life on earth, but it is not a perfect enzyme; we think we can improve the efficiency with which it functions, especially in plants such as cowpea.”

Dr Carmo-Silva is particularly interested in understanding and optimising the regulation of Rubisco in response to environmental cues. “One aspect of Rubisco function that needs improving is how quickly it turns on when the amount of light that reaches a leaf increases,” said Dr Carmo-Silva. “In shaded leaves, carbon assimilation is slow and Rubisco is not very active; on the contrary, in full sunlight, Rubisco activity increases in response to the additional energy available for carbon assimilation. We are screening diverse genotypes of cowpea and soybean to identify variation in the speed of Rubisco response to light to inform breeding of these crops for improved yields.”

According to RIPE director Professor Stephen Long, the models predict that by combining several strategies, a 50 percent increase in yields is possible.

"Time is of the essence — especially as we look to a future filled with more people and a dramatically different climate," said Long, the Ikenberry Endowed University Chair of Crop Sciences and Plant Biology at the University of Illinois and Distinguished Professor in Crop Sciences at Lancaster University. "We must future-proof our food supply today to ensure that these technologies are available when we need them."

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