Most of our food, fibre and fuel is sourced directly or indirectly from plants as energy-containing and nutrient-rich molecules like sugars, amino acids, proteins, starch, oils and cellulose. The synthesis, transport, storage and use of these molecules during growth and development is the plant energy system and it determines the final yield of plant products. Its efficiency at different scales can be measured: in cells as the proportion of energy used for cell maintenance vs growth; in whole plants as the ratio of input resources to harvest product; in the environment as the degree of adaptation of populations of plants to grow successfully in variable conditions. All these measures are proxies for a very complex but essential plant trait - their energy efficiency.
What makes energy efficiency a priority target?
The world urgently requires plants that more efficiently procure the resources provided by nature and farmers, to generate more harvestable products on agricultural soils that are decreasing in area and fertility, and to maintain this performance in harsh and variable environments. Energy efficiency is at the centre of this requirement, and can be gained or lost at multiple levels:
- at the molecular level in control of gene expression and metabolic processes;
- at the cellular level through specialisation and signalling
- at the developmental level through physiological responses to the environment
These gains and losses impact in a cumulative fashion across spatial scales, from tissues to whole plants and fields, which require a team with expertise ranging from genes and proteins to plant physiology.
Even elite crops under ideal conditions only convert 10-15% of carbon fixed by photosynthesis into harvestable yield, with much less efficiency under harsh environments. Therefore, small efficiency gains in the multitude of processes beyond carbon capture, but before harvest, will combine to have a magnified benefit to yield. Through combining expertise we can target these biological processes to improve efficiencies using new technological innovations and build a Centre to maximise their integration and use in plant science.