Some of you may remember the 1995 Adam Sandler movie “Billy Madison.” At some point during his re-education challenge he is pictured sitting through a high school science class while his teacher is explaining photosynthesis. The obnoxious quote from Billy Madison is:
“Chlorophyll?! More like BORE-O-PHYLL! Right?”
It didn’t get that many laughs in the movie either. However, it speaks volumes as to how the public views my particular research field. I don’t take it personally, but think about this. The writers had to think of a lecture topic for a science class that would be the most boring and difficult to follow for even a ten second clip, and they chose photosynthesis. I’m not suggesting they set research back, but it underscores the fact that my field needs better public relations.
To be honest, I happened upon the photosynthesis research field by chance and entered with much the same attitude as Billy Madison. I was offered an opportunity to do undergraduate research in the laboratory of my introductory biology teacher. I couldn’t wait to cure cancer or Alzheimer’s or surely, work with the Ebola virus. During lab orientation, I was told, “We work on photosynthesis.” blank stare…processing…processing…does not compute… Surely I had heard something wrong, because don’t we already know everything about photosynthesis? I distinctly remember memorizing an equation.
The truth is that there is a lot more to know about how plants (and other photosynthetic organisms) change sunlight into sugar for the rest of the biosphere. We still don’t know the molecular details of how this process works. I know, I know, plants will continue to photosynthesize whether or not we understand it. So why is it an important research topic again? Basically, plants are only efficient enough to reproduce themselves, but humans have significantly higher demands of plants. We need plants to provide food, fiber, renewable energy and other raw materials to a world with 7 billion people and counting. So, yes, human intervention is necessary to get plants to be as productive as we need them to be and to artificially recreate their biochemistry for other useful purposes.
The engine that runs plant productivity is photosynthesis. We know a lot about it already, but just enough to be in awe of how it works and anxious about its limits with respect to our demands. This isn’t a very comfortable position. Additional basic research on how plants perform these reactions and how they regulate them under changing environmental conditions is extremely important for answering larger questions like, “How can we feed everyone on the planet?” and “Can we use plants to sustainably produce enough energy to replace fossil fuels?”.
I don’t think anyone would consider these questions boring.