Photosynthesis Under Stress

Plants and algae rely on sunlight to produce the energy they need to live. But even for organisms that depend on light, too much of a good thing can have dangerous consequences.

When light gets too bright, the biological machinery responsible for photosynthesis can malfunction. The excess energy from light damages key photosynthetic components within the organism. However, plants and algae have evolved a suite of mechanisms to appropriately dissipate extra energy from light as heat—a set of processes known as non-photochemical quenching (NPQ). Researchers in the Niyogi lab in the plant and microbial biology department at UC Berkeley are interested in how a better understanding of NPQ and photosynthesis can be used to improve photosynthetic efficiency and plant productivity.

While most photosynthetic organisms initiate NPQ under bright light, this costly process can be wasteful when turned on at the wrong time. For example, when a cloud passes overhead, NPQ is often still dissipating energy that could be used for photosynthesis. Kris Niyogi and collaborator Steven Long at the University of Illinois jumped on the opportunity to bioengineer a solution. In a recent study published in Science, Niyogi and collaborators  introduced three central NPQ components from the model organism Arabidopsis into a relative of the tobacco plant to allow the plant to better respond to changes in light. In doing so, scientists achieved a remarkable 15 percent increase in plant growth in natural field conditions. Niyogi hopes that learning more about how plants and algae regulate photosynthesis will shed light on improving crop productivity—an essential task for feeding an exponentially growing population.

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