Algae: Saving Plants From Themselves To End World Hunger
Algae have been looked at as a viable source for all sorts of innovative projects, including as a promising biofuel. Now it’s being examined as a possible solution for feeding the world. Before you start wrinkling your nose up at the idea of eating it, no, that’s not where this is heading. Instead, the slimy green stuff may help to transform many agricultural crops into super producers with fewer requirements in a shorter amount of time. How so, you say? Algae are apparently far more efficient than most plant species at absorbing carbon dioxide from the air.
All About Protein
According to a new study from Carnegie, “If their efficiency could be transferred to crops, we could grow more food in less time using less water and less nitrogen fertilizer.” The study was conducted by a team of scientists led by Martin Jonikas and published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. During their investigation the group found that a protein they’re calling Essential Pyrenoid Component 1, or EPYC1, is what makes green algae so darn efficient. But it needs to be bound with an enzyme called Rubisco first.
Increasing Crop Production
Rubisco, which originally evolved in bacteria billions of years ago, is the planet’s most abundant enzyme. It has the ability to convert atmospheric carbon dioxide into carbon-based sugars in all photosynthetic organisms residing here on Earth. That “reaction” or ability is at the core of life here as we know it due to the fact that almost all of the carbon that makes up living organisms was at some point "fixed" from the atmosphere by Rubisco. The rate with which that reaction takes place results in a limited growth pace for many crops, and a number of researchers now believe that by accelerating this reaction we could possibly increase crop yields.
Apparently, algae have evolved in such a way as to allow Rubisco to run at an accelerated rate with the help of pyrenoid. Carnegie describes it as “a turbocharger for carbon fixation.” The pyrenoid is actually a small pocket or chamber inside the cell that is filled with Rubisco and surrounded by a sleeve of starch. Its purpose is to concentrate carbon dioxide around the Rubisco so that it can work more quickly. Pyrenoid gives such an amazing growth advantage that almost all algae in the oceans posses one. Because the process isn’t completely understood, more research needs to be done before the science can be applied toward engineering pyrenoids into crops.
Ending World Hunger
If successfully applied, the process is expected to possibly enhance crop yields by as much as a whopping 60 percent. Pretty impressive. This would go a long way towards alleviating many of the problems we face with feeding growing world populations. World hunger has always been a concern, but with changing weather patterns that include extreme temperatures and droughts, future generations could be faced with even steeper hills to climb when it comes to feeding the masses. This possible solution could lessen the impact of Mother Nature’s fickle behavior and allow us to still keep food on the table.
For more insight into the study, check out pnas.org here.