One of the major challenges faced globally is the need to feed an ever increasing population, which is set to rise from 7 billion to 9 billion by 2050, and to do this in a sustainable way that does not adversely restrict the options of future generations. An important avenue of research, amongst the range of multidisciplinary approaches this will require, is to increase the yield of crops such as wheat.

One of the ways this could be achieved is to increase the efficiency of photosynthesis and a key target for this is the enzyme D-ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase/oxygenase known as Rubisco. Rubisco catalyses the incorporation of CO2 into biological compounds in photosynthetic organisms but it also reacts with oxygen, large amounts of it are required and its turnover is slow. There are significant variations in the catalytic activity of rubisco with the rubisco found in C4 plants and cyanobacteria being considerably more efficient. Previously efforts to incorporate rubisco from cyanobacteria into C3 plants, which lack mechanisms to increase CO2 concentration enabling them to utilise rubisco variants which have lower CO2 affinity and higher catalytic rates, have met with little success. However work published this week in Nature from one of our strategically funded institutes, Rothamsted Research, in conjunction with scientists from Cornell, has made progress in this area. They generated two transplastomic tobacco lines where the endogenous tobacco rbcL gene was replaced with the large and small subunit genes of a cyanobacterial rubisco enzyme, in combination with either its corresponding assembly chaperone, RbcX, or an internal carboxysomal protein, CcmM35. Both lines expressed functional rubisco enzymes which had had higher rates of CO2 fixation per unit of enzyme than the tobacco control and represent an important step towards increasing photosynthesis in C3 crop species and hence downstream yield.

BBSRC is the main UK public investor in basic plant bioscience not only through strategically funded institutes such as Rothamsted Research and the John Innes Centre but also through funding in universities. So I was very pleased to be asked to open the Hounsfield Facility at the Sutton Bonnington campus of Nottingham University.

Copyright: The University of Nottingham
Newbold the robot. Copyright: The University of Nottingham

This centre has been named after Sir Godfrey Newbold Hounsfield who was awarded the 1979 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine with Allan McLeod Cormack for his part in developing the diagnostic technique of X-ray computed tomography (CT). His niece attended and gave some wonderful personal insights into this innovative man – apparently the stimulus for his thinking around CT was a desire to see what was inside a picnic basket without opening it! The rational for naming the building after Sir Godfrey is that the building is dedicated to using CT scanning for plant phenotyping of the rhizosphere – studying the interactions between the soil and the plant root system.

The centre houses three X-ray CT scanners that can explore a wide range of spatial resolutions (µm to cm). Importantly it also brings together an interdisciplinary team of soil scientists, chemists and physicists who interact closely with environmental modellers, climate change scientists, image analysts, mathematicians and plant biologists. In order to increase throughput the glasshouse is home to an impressive robotic handling system (the robot’s name is Newbold, another link to Sir Godfrey). In the future this facility will be able to provide some answers to questions such as how does soil compaction affect root growth, how does the root sense and respond to different nutrient or water levels and how does altering the genotype affect these phenotypes.

I also enjoyed meeting BBSRC-funded postdocs and students as well as senior staff from the University and took away some actions for follow-up as well as a lot of interesting science – perhaps the most unexpected was that
elephants not only get herpes but also that it’s fatal in the Asian elephant but not the African elephant!

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