MIT’s mission, established in 1861, aims to advance science in various fields including agriculture. The Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) is a leading force in water and food-related research at MIT. In 2022, J-WAFS introduced the Water and Food Grand Challenge Grant to encourage MIT researchers to work towards a secure future in terms of water and food resources. In response, 23 researchers from different departments submitted their statements of interest. After a series of workshops and discussions, the J-WAFS Grand Challenge Grant was awarded to a team led by Professor Matt Shoulders and research scientist Robert Wilson from MIT’s Department of Chemistry. The team will receive $1.5 million over three years to conduct research on improving photosynthesis efficiency in crops.
Photosynthesis is a critical process in which plants convert carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air into energy-rich molecules that contribute to their growth. This process is hindered by an enzyme called RuBisCO, which is essential for capturing CO2. RuBisCO has limitations in terms of speed and its ability to discriminate between oxygen and carbon dioxide molecules. Furthermore, at higher temperatures, RuBisCO’s efficiency decreases. By improving RuBisCO, scientists believe they can enhance crop production and address food security issues.
The J-WAFS Grand Challenge project plans to use innovative protein engineering techniques to enhance photosynthesis in crops, focusing on modifying RuBisCO. The team will create an Enhanced Photosynthesis in Crops (EPiC) platform to evolve and design better crop RuBisCO in the laboratory. These improved enzymes will then be tested in plants and evaluated in field trials to determine their impact on crop yield.
Recent advancements in technology have made high-throughput engineering of crop RuBisCO possible. The team will utilize a complex chaperone network to guide the maturation process of RuBisCO proteins. They will also employ directed evolution campaigns to accelerate the protein engineering process. Additionally, artificial intelligence and machine learning will be utilized to simulate the dynamics of RuBisCO structure and explore its evolutionary landscape.
This research project has the potential to revolutionize agriculture and address the global challenges of food security and climate change. By improving photosynthesis efficiency, crops can produce higher yields, ensuring a secure food supply for the growing population. The collaboration between MIT researchers and external collaborators will bring together experts in various fields to solve this grand challenge.