Photosynthesis researcher awarded $1m funding boost

Matt JohnsonA $1 million funding boost will help scientists understand how plants protect themselves from excess light, providing new insights that could improve global food security.

The funding from the Human Frontiers Science Programme (HFSP) will support research by Dr Matt Johnson from Sheffield's Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, who was awarded one of the Society of Experimental Biology’s President’s Medals last year.

Matt studies the molecular machinery of photosynthesis. The HFSP Young Investigators grant will go towards a new collaboration, 'Regulation of photosynthetic light harvesting: how does protein conformation control photophysics?'

"In a natural habitat plants encounter changeable light conditions due to variations in weather and shading by other plants," Matt said "To work on cloudy days or in shade plants have evolved a highly-sophisticated light harvesting antenna system to capture and concentrate enough solar energy for photosynthesis."

But on very sunny days, plants absorb more solar energy than they need for photosynthesis. This can damage plants and reduce crop yields, so plants have evolved ways to defend themselves from excess light.

"However, to date we do not fully understand how the fast chemical reactions inside light harvesting proteins that quench the excess energy are controlled at the molecular level by the plant and how they are precisely tuned to the prevailing light conditions," Matt said. "To advance our understanding further, the teams in Sheffield, MIT and Okizaki will combine novel synthetic structural biology, ultrafast femtosecond spectroscopy and quantum molecular dynamics simulations."

The project will be a collaboration between Matt, Professor Gabriela Schlau-Cohen in the Department of Chemistry at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA, and Dr Akihito Ishizaki from the National Institutes of Natural Science, Okazaki, Japan.

Matt said: “We are about to embark upon a fascinating new collaborative project with our partners that will shed new light on plants manage to constantly adapt to the light environment on a minute-by-minute basis to avoid sunburn and maximise their growth. Understanding the fine molecular details involved will allow us engineer more efficient crop plants in the future to meet the challenge of feeding a growing world population."

Find out more about the latest Human Frontiers Science Programme awards