Jan IngenHousz Institute
working on improving sunlight use to boost crop production

Photosynthesis institute launches on 1 October, starting in the field, not in the lab


There will be ten billion mouths to feed across the globe by 2050 – two billion more than today. The explosive population growth in Africa and South Asia, along with climate change and biodiversity loss, is putting food security under ever more pressure. A breakthrough is urgently needed. One avenue with potential involves improving photosynthesis in food crops. With this in mind, the Jan IngenHousz Institute launches on 1 October. At this independent institute, plant scientists from a range of disciplines will attempt to unpick the secret of photosynthesis efficiency. Director David Kramer: “If we can find out how plants can use sunlight more efficiently, we can massively improve crop yields.”


East Africa, the Middle East and South Asia are sounding the alarm: there is a global food crisis. Harvests are declining due to climate change. More than 800 million people are still going to bed on an empty stomach. To offer the whole world food security, we need a revolution in agriculture. In response to this, scientists are looking at photosynthesis, the green engine behind agriculture. “Without photosynthesis there is no life,” explains Professor Martin Kropff, chairman of the Jan IngenHousz Institute Supervisory Board and former rector magnificus of Wageningen University & Research. “Plants get the energy they need to grow from sunlight. During photosynthesis, plants convert CO₂ and water into oxygen and sugars under the influence of light. This is the basis of all the compounds plants are made up of. It is a delicate and complex process that consists of a huge number of steps that impact on each other in different ways. For years, plant scientists around the world have been trying to find out how plants can make better use of sunlight to improve growth.”

“Plants usually only use a small percentage of the solar energy they absorb,” says Professor David Kramer, director of the new institute. “They could be much more efficient, but stressful conditions such as heat and drought often cause a decline in photosynthesis efficiency. This reduces crop productivity and sustainability even further, and these effects are reinforced by climate change.” 


The real world as a laboratory 

“Unpicking the secrets of photosynthesis in the real world is a huge challenge,” explains Kramer. “Different processes in the plant limit photosynthesis under different conditions, and each of these processes is controlled by different sets of genes. All these processes react second by second to fluctuations in light, temperature, humidity, wind, nutrients and other environmental factors. And these effects can all differ from one crop to the next.”

Researchers will need to find out which process limits photosynthesis in multiple crops in many different real-world situations. According to Kramer, this is a huge challenge that is difficult to achieve with traditional scientific lab-based approaches. “Instead, we will need to use the real world as a laboratory. One of the first essential steps is to develop advanced photosynthesis sensors and data science tools. They can continuously record in great detail how photosynthesis responds to changes in conditions in many thousands of plants. We can then use this data to determine what processes are limiting factors under specific conditions.” 

Along the way, the Jan IngenHousz Institute expects to discover fundamentally new science about photosynthesis and how it works in the real world. “We will be able to tell from that whether changes in specific genes are likely to improve performance. Then we will need to take both the knowledge and the sensors to large numbers of plant breeders and engineers
all over the world to record useful changes in crops.”


EUR 62M investment

Accompanying the establishment of the new institute is a €62 million investment spread over the next 10 years. The Photosynthesis 2.0 Research Fund is contributing €50 million. “The fund wants to help solve the food problem. It is thanks to the fund that we have been able to open the new institute. WUR is contributing €12 million, a contribution that largely consists of personnel and laboratory use at reduced rates,” says Kropff. “We are proud to be able to appoint David Kramer as director. David is an international top researcher with a wealth of knowledge and experience in various areas of photosynthesis research. He will put together an interdisciplinary team and decide on a systematic approach for the research programme. His idea is to look at the overall system before he drills down into the details.”


Scientific platform

According to Kramer, the problem is too large to be solved by one laboratory. “We will have to enable a lot of other people working in different disciplines and with different crops to take part. So we are building an open scientific platform that is accessible to a community of hundreds of research groups all over the world.” The platform will enable this wide-ranging community to measure photosynthesis in many crops in new ways. 

This approach has only recently become an option due to the rapid progress that has been made in technology, data science and in our understanding of plant science, Kramer says. “But if we are to benefit from this progress, we must eliminate the barriers between disciplines. We must ensure that engineers, data scientists, biochemists, biophysicists, geneticists and plant breeders communicate and collaborate with each other. Fortunately, our co-founder Wageningen University & Research is a world leading centre of excellence for many of these disciplines. The new institute will connect scientists and engineers, both within WUR and with institutes and organisations all over the world.”


David Kramer and Martin Kropff are looking ahead to the future with confidence. If plants convert just a little more sunlight into sugars, this will have a huge impact on food production. Kropff: “We think it is achievable. This would be good news for the Global South.” Kramer adds: “The overarching aim is to enable breeders to breed plants that produce more food whilst being more resistant to climate change, without a disproportionate need for water or fertilisers.”


Jan IngenHousz

The institute is named after Jan IngenHousz, an 18th-century Dutch physician and chemist. IngenHousz built on the experiments of Joseph Priestley, whose famous experiments with glass jars led him to discover that plants use light energy to grow. IngenHousz discovered that this ability in plants originates in the chloroplasts. More than 30 PhD students and 60 postdocs will be working on the research programme at the Jan IngenHousz Institute in the years ahead. Kramer: “We already know a lot about how photosynthesis works, but improving its efficiency is largely uncharted territory. This is a wonderful opportunity for new scientific careers.”



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