Michigan State University main website

Speeding Up Plants’ Production Cycle Can Destroy Them

Atsuko Kanazawa

For more than 15 years, Atsuko Kanazawa and her colleagues at the MSU-DOE Plant Research Laboratory (PRL) have been working to improve the efficiency of photosynthesis – the process that plants and algae use to capture solar energy. They have focused on a tiny machine in a plant’s chloroplast called the  ATP synthase, a complex of proteins essential to storing solar energy in “high energy molecules” that power life on Earth.

That same ATP molecule and a very similar ATP synthase are both used by animals, including humans, to grow, maintain health, and move.

In plants, the ATP synthase happens to be one of the slowest process in photosynthesis, often limiting the amount of energy plants can store.

Kanazawa’s research now shows that the slowness of the ATP synthase is not an accident; it’s an important braking mechanism that prevents photosynthesis from producing harmful chemicals, called reactive oxygen species, which can damage or kill the plant.

“It turns out that sunlight can be damaging to plants,” says Dave Kramer, Hannah Distinguished Professor and lead investigator in the Kramer lab.

“When plants cannot use the light energy they are capturing, photosynthesis backs up and toxic chemicals accumulate, potentially destroying parts of the photosynthetic system. It is especially dangerous when light and other conditions, like temperature, change rapidly.”

“We need to figure out how the plant presses on the brakes and tune it so that it responds faster…”

“In order to improve photosynthesis, what we need is not to remove the brakes completely, but to control them better,” Kramer says. “Specifically, we need to figure out how the plant presses on the brakes and tune it so that it responds faster and more efficiently.”

Kanazawa adds: “Scientists are trying different methods to improve photosynthesis. Ultimately, we need to continue feeding the Earth’s population, which is exploding in size.”

The study is published in the journal, Frontiers in Plant Science.


This work was primarily funded by the US Department of Energy, Office of Basic Energy Sciences.

Comments are closed.