Photosynthesis in plants utilizes a complex arrangement of proteins, enzymes, and other chemical components to turn electromagnetic energy from the sun into chemical energy for the plant. Evolution has resulted in photosynthetic pathways that are optimized systems engineered down to the quantum level. However, researchers at the University of Illinois wanted to know if they could tweak the photosynthesis pathway for better food productivity.
Conducting these kinds of tests on real plants would require considerable time and experimentation, if it is possible at all. Instead, the scientists were able to model the entire photosynthesis pathway digitally, and begin to 'evolve' the model through evolutionary algorithms that allow rapid testing on the computer. The scientists found that by rearranging the use of nitrogen in the system, they could almost double the efficiency of plant productivity. Principal investigator Steve Long answers the question, why haven't plants already evolved to be as efficient as possible?
"The answer may lie in the fact that evolution selects for survival and fecundity, while we were selecting for increased productivity," he said. Plants have evolved to be optimized to their environments, not optimized for productivity.
So is it really a better leaf? Or more importantly, is this knowledge we should use to reduce the amount of nitrogen needed for food production?
Tweaking systems for food production can be done on many physical scales. On a larger scale we have seen that a poly-culture can be 238% more efficient in terms of biomass production. Given Long's study we now know that plants can alter their systems on the molecular level for doubling production- but at what price?
For me details on the 'in-silico' research follow the link.
Photo Credit to Don Hamerman
via :: University of Illinois News