Improving the conversion of light into biomass will require thinking outside the box, says Riaz Bhunnoo.

Riaz Bhunnoo

It’s said that you can’t force people to have fun, but can you help a group of people to be creative?

The answer is yes. But it depends largely on the people present and the environment they are in.

The Ideas Lab on enhancing photosynthesis, jointly organised by BBSRC and the National Science Foundation in the US, and held at the Asilomar Conference Center, California, Sept 13-17 aimed to create an environment conducive to creative,  ‘out of the box’ thinking. The idea was to bring together a diverse group of people from different disciplinary backgrounds and to use their unique perspectives and expertise to generate novel and potentially ground-breaking ideas in a similar format to a ‘sandpit’.

But this was no ordinary workshop: up to $8M was available ($4M each from the UK and US) for transformative high-risk high-reward research proposals.

Transatlantic and multidisciplinary research teams were strongly encouraged, as the challenge of enhancing the natural process of photosynthesis, which converts the energy of incident sunlight into leaf biomass with an efficiency of up to 6% in most crops, requires the brightest minds to tackle the problem from all angles.

To help us meet the food and energy demands of the future it’s clear that a step change in knowledge is required that will, in turn, lead to a step change in productivity. Transformative research such as this does occur periodically through normal funding mechanisms, but the challenge of sustainably producing 40% more food by 2030 to feed a growing population requires concerted action now to catalyse the process.

The Ideas Lab was guided by a team of five mentors – experts in fields relevant to photosynthesis who were not eligible for funding; their role was to challenge participants’ thinking and stimulate the development of new ideas.

The week began with participants getting to know each other and building relationships. A provocateur was brought in to provide a different perspective on the problem and challenge conventional thinking. The participants then started to explore the problem space, dealing with any potential barriers by turning them into questions: “how might we?” or ”what if we could?”. These questions were then clustered into distinct challenges across the photosynthetic pathway.

These challenges were continually presented back to all participants at the Ideas Lab for further exploration and development, and it was here that participants shaped each other’s thinking with their own unique perspectives.

Participants were then given free rein to work on any challenge they wished and could change group at any time up until the final presentation on the last day, or be part of more than one group. Evolving project teams regularly gave presentations to all Ideas Lab participants on their developing projects and they received anonymous feedback. This presentation-feedback process highlighted expertise missing from a team that could be provided by another participant, but importantly allowed for continual peer review of projects as they developed. In this way, every participant had a hand influencing the direction of the emerging projects. Team feedback was also provided by the mentors throughout.

On the last day project teams gave a final presentation and submitted their outline proposals. The mentors took on the role of an expert panel and assessed the proposals, making recommendations on which projects to invite back to the full proposal stage.

There was a very high standard of proposals and four multidisciplinary, innovative and potentially transformative research projects were invited back.

Most of these projects exploit the fact that plants, algae and cyanobacteria all have slightly different photosynthetic machinery. This allows these organisms to absorb light at different wavelengths and, in the case of cyanobacteria and algae, to pump in carbon dioxide to improve the efficiency of carbon fixation. The focus of some of the projects is to optimise these beneficial features and incorporate them into plants.

Interestingly, plants can only absorb light in a fraction of the solar spectrum (absorbing around half of the incident sunlight), and when they reach saturation, any further light absorbed is dissipated as heat as the plant is unable to use it. Maximising the use of these untapped sources of light energy is also a strong feature of some projects.

The result, if just one of these projects is successful, could be a transformational change in our capacity to produce significantly more with less.

About Riaz Bhunnoo

Riaz Bhunnoo is Head of the Global Food Security Programme. Riaz leads a three strong team and drives forward GFS activities in partnership with the GFS Champion and the UK public funders of food security research. Riaz has worked at BBSRC since 2005, and in that time has also undertaken a secondment to the RCUK Executive Directorate to work on cross-Council research coordination and policy. Riaz is a strong advocate of interdisciplinary working to tackle the biggest challenges facing society.

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