Better photosynthesis key to boosting yields

Genetic enhancement | Benson Hill Biosystems aims to make plant stronger before it has to deal with environmental issues

Crop yields could be boosted 50 to 300 percent just by getting better photosynthesis, says a leading developer of biotech crop improvements.

“Photosynthesis today is actually a grossly inefficient process,” said Matthew Crisp, chief executive officer of Benson Hill Biosystems Inc.

“The most elite cultivars don’t have more than four percent efficiency.”

Crisp, whose company is developing ways to crank up the photosynthetic output of plants with metabolic engineering, thinks the next generation of biotech gains in crops will come from multiple genetic enhancements improving the overall systemic strength of plants.

Crisp told the Agri Innovation Forum in Winnipeg Nov. 19-20 that the first wave of biotech crops mostly used “silver bullet-based” improvements that allowed crops to get much closer to their “intrinsic yields” than they would have been able to achieve without them.

That includes both herbicide tolerance and insect resistance, which allow crops to avoid some of the biggest yield killers in the field.

However, Crisp said the developments his company wants to achieve are aimed at increasing yield potential before environmental factors affect the crop.

Major gains are only possible with “creating genetic diversity that would otherwise never occur in nature.”

Crisp said the present trajectory of yield improvements will not meet the projected need to double crop yields within the next 35 years. 

“We know that the rate of innovation today to accomplish this is not sufficient,” said Crisp.

“We need to accelerate innovation in this space.”

The Agri Innovation Forum was a Dragon’s Den-like event at which small, cutting edge biotech and start-up companies with supposedly revolutionary products presented themselves to a hall full of venture capitalists, investors and funding agencies.

Crisp said his company doesn’t follow the “throw it against the wall and see if it sticks” approach of much current primary research. 

Instead, it uses an “informed discovery pipeline” that rigorously identifies likely avenues of success and follows them.


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