Newton-Abraham Public Lecture - Engineering Photosynthesis for Global Food Security. Why, How and Will You Let Me do it?

After several years in which global food supply has improved, shortages are now re-emerging. This increases the probability of repetition of the high food prices of 2007/8 that triggered food riots in many poor countries and possibly the Arab Spring. The United Nations Food & Agricultrual Organization project a worsening situation with global demand for our major crops rising 60% by 2050. This is at a time when the steady increases in yield seen over the second half of the last century are stagnating, or even reversing, under global climate change. The approaches of the Green Revolution are approaching their biological limits, and new innovations are urgently needed if we are to insure against future shortages. Photosynthesis is arguably the most important process on our planet and the source directly, or indirectly, of all food. Its efficiency in crops falls well below the theoretical maximum and has been improved little by centuries of selection and breeding; the reasons for which will be explained. Today photosynthesis is the best understood of all plant processes, allowing us to describe each of its 100+ steps mathematically. Using this as the basis of in silico engineering using high-performance computing we have identified a number of points at different levels of organization from metabolism to organization of leaves in field crops where efficiency could be improved. Bioengineering has begun to validate a number of these suggested improvements with substantially greater crop productivity in experimental fields. This will be illustrated with some specific examples, including improvement of the speed with which crop leaves recover photosynthetic efficiency during the frequent fluctuations in light that occur in the field. Our analyses suggest that such engineering could lead to a >50% sustainable improvement in crop yield potential so providing insurance against future food shortage and avoiding yet further agricultural expansion and destruction of natural areas. However, this solution requires genetic engineering of crops which has met with great resistance in Western Europe, in turn affecting many of the countries where this technology is most needed.

Steve currently serves as Director of the multinational Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation RIPE Project which is developing technologies for increased photosynthetic efficiency in crops for sustainable yield increases. He is listed by Thomson-Reuters as one of the most highly cited authors on Plant & Animal Biology. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2013. His mathematically guided engineering of photosynthesis led last year to a demonstrated on farm 20% increase in crop productivity. This was heralded by The Guardian as one of the 12 Scientific Moments of 2016.