Crop Biotech Update

Scientists Resurrect Ancient Rubisco to Improve Photosynthesis

April 27, 2022
Maureen Hanson, the Liberty Hyde Bailey Professor of Plant Molecular Biology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and Myat Lin, research associate, work in their lab in Cornell University's Biotechnology Building. Photo Source: Ryan Young, Cornell University

A Cornell University study published in Science Advances describes a breakthrough in the quest to improve photosynthesis in certain crops, a step toward adapting plants to climate changes and increasing yields to feed the world's projected 9 billion population by 2050.

Senior author Maureen Hanson and first author Myat Lin developed a computational technique to predict favorable gene sequences that make Rubisco, the key plant enzyme for photosynthesis. The technique identified promising candidate enzymes that could be engineered into modern crops and, ultimately, make photosynthesis more efficient and increase crop yields. The technique relied on evolutionary history, where researchers predicted Rubisco genes from 20-30 million years ago. By resurrecting ancient Rubisco, early results show promise for the development of faster, more efficient Rubisco enzymes to incorporate into crops and help them adapt to hot, dry future conditions.

The study describes predictions of 98 Rubisco enzymes at key moments in the evolutionary history of plants in the Solanaceae family, which include tomato, pepper, potato, eggplant, and tobacco. Researchers used tobacco for their studies of Rubisco. Lin reconstructed a phylogeny of Rubisco using Solanaceae plants and then applied an experimental system that uses E. coli bacteria to test the efficacy of different versions of Rubisco. The team found that ancient Rubisco enzymes predicted from modern-day Solanaceae plants showed real promise for being more efficient.

If this method proves successful, the identified efficient Rubisco sequences could be transferred into crops such as tomatoes, soybeans, and rice.

For more details, read the article in Cornell Chronicle.

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