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New Phytol. 2009;181(3):532-52. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-8137.2008.02705.x. Epub 2008 Dec 18.

Agriculture and the new challenges for photosynthesis research.

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Division of Plant and Crop Sciences, School of Biosciences, University of Nottingham, Sutton Bonington LE12 5RD, UK.


A rising human population and changing patterns of land use mean that world food production rates will need to be increased by at least 50% by 2050, a massive rise in harvestable yield per hectare of the major crops such as rice (Oryza sativa) and wheat (Triticum aestivum). Combinations of breeding for improved morphology-related traits such as harvest index and increased inputs of water and fertilizer, which have sustained yield increases since the 1960s, will be neither sufficient nor sustainable. An important limiting factor will be the capacity to produce sufficient biomass during favourable growing periods. Here we analyse this problem in the context of increasing the efficiency of conversion of solar energy into biomass, that is, leaf and canopy photosynthesis. Focussing on crops carrying out C3 photosynthesis, we analyse the evidence for 'losses' in the process of conversion of solar energy into crop biomass and we explore novel mechanisms of improving biomass production rates, which have arisen from recent research into the fundamental primary processes of photosynthesis and carbohydrate metabolism. We show that there are several lines of evidence that these processes are not fully optimized for maximum yield. We put forward the hypothesis that the chloroplast itself should be given greater prominence as a sensor, processor and integrator of highly variable environmental signals to allow a more efficient transduction of energy supply into biomass production.

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