Photosynthesis uses the enzyme Rubisco—the planet's most abundant protein—and sunlight energy to turn carbon dioxide and water into sugars that fuel plant growth and yield. Over millennia, Rubisco has become a victim of its own success, creating an oxygen-rich atmosphere. Unable to reliably distinguish between the two molecules, Rubisco grabs oxygen instead of carbon dioxide about 20 percent of the time, resulting in a plant-toxic compound that must be recycled through the process of photorespiration.
"Photorespiration is anti-photosynthesis," said lead author Paul South, a research molecular biologist with the Agricultural Research Service, who works on the RIPE project at Illinois. "It costs the plant precious energy and resources that it could have invested in photosynthesis to produce more growth and yield."
Photorespiration normally takes a complicated route through three compartments in the plant cell. Scientists engineered alternate pathways to reroute the process, drastically shortening the trip and saving enough resources to boost plant growth by 40 percent.