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University of Warwick to use MAGIC to improve plant productivity

The Systems Biology Centre in the University of Warwick has just been awarded a research grant from BBSRC together with collaborators in Cambridge, Glasgow and the USA to work on substantially improving the photosynthesis efficiency of plants. The grant award to the full collaboration is for £1.6 million.

University of Warwick researcher Professor Nigel Burroughs said:

“Plants are in fact poor convertors of light energy, less than 1/10th of the light energy being converted into biomass, and substantially less is converted into a useful food product. The source of this inefficiency runs very deep, the crucial enzyme (called Rubisco, in fact the most abundant protein on the planet) has a low preference for utilising carbon dioxide relative to oxygen, while only use of the former fixes carbon dioxide into useful products such as sugars. This property is a remnant from when Rubisco evolved 3500 million years ago, a time when carbon dioxide was very plentiful and oxygen levels negligible. Some plants have evolved mechanisms to deal with this as oxygen levels have increased, but most crops today, such as rice, remain inefficient because of this poor enzyme.”

Researchers in Warwick, Cambridge, Glasgow, Pennsylvania and Berkeley have been awarded a grant to tackle this problem, called Multi-level Approaches for Generating Increased CO2, or MAGIC, they aim to engineer a carbon dioxide capturing mechanism inside the plant using the latest techniques in synthetic biology. This can be thought of as nano bioengineering, the idea being to design a scaffold that funnels carbon dioxide direct to Rubisco.

Professor Nigel Burroughs at the University of Warwick’s Systems Biology Centre is a world expert on applying mathematics to biological systems. In this research programme he will apply this expertise, modelling the delivery system and identifying which designs will give the most benefit.

University of Warwick researcher Professor Nigel Burroughs also said:

“This is a first step in an exceptionally challenging area of research. The time scale for this type of engineering to deliver returns for agriculture is likely to be at least a decade. However there are obviously significant benefits in undertaking this challenging research. With the world-wide rise in food and energy prices, it is clear that solutions to the competing demands for land must be found to prevent a global crisis.

“This research project is one of four transatlantic collaborations announced today that are exploring potential avenues towards solutions, the hope being that by starting now we will be in a position to deliver substantial improvements in agricultural productivity by 2025.”

For further information please contact:

Professor Nigel Burroughs, Professor in Systems Biology,
Mathematics Institute and Warwick Systems Biology Centre, University of Warwick
Tel: +44 (0)24 76524682
Email:  N.J.Burroughs@warwick.ac.uk

Peter Dunn, Head of Communications
Communications Office, University House,
University of Warwick, Coventry, CV4 8UW, United Kingdom
email: p.j.dunn@warwick.ac.uk
Tel: +44 (0)24 76 523708 Mobile/Cell: +44 (0)7767 655860

PR36 1st April 2011