The world’s staple food crops could see yields increase by 15 percent following breakthrough research in photosynthesis. The research, published in the journal Science, used genetic modification to increase the amount of sunlight energy that crop plants can channel into food production. Researchers say this is a critical step towards increasing crop production to feed a growing global population.

Lead researcher Prof Stephen Long, based at the University of Illinois and the University of Lancaster, and his team, targeted decades of research into the process by which plants convert sunlight energy into food. According to the research, plants have also evolved to protect themselves from sun-damage, which slows the photosynthesis process by getting rid of excess energy as heat. But the photosynthetic systems do not adapt as rapidly as when the plant becomes shaded by clouds, for instance, resulting in sub-optimal photosynthetic efficiency.

To address the slowdown of the photosynthesis process, the scientists bioengineered  an accelerated response to natural shading events responsible for this heat-loss, which grew their genetically modified crop, by 15% larger than normal. The researchers are now making this change in rice, in soy bean and wheat, since those crops are the largest crops globally. If a similar increase in yields occur in those crops, it may alleviate future pressure on food supply, according to Professor Long.

Given the UN projections that the world will need to grow 70% more food, as the global population rises to more than nine billion people, improving the processes involved in photosynthesis may serve as an important step in solving food security.