Behind the Cover: New Phytologist 213:1, January 2017

It may look like any other leaf canopy, but the cassava leaves on the front cover of the first issue of New Phytologist for 2017 could hold part of the key to feeding the world’s growing population.

In their Tansley review, Amanda De Souza and colleagues from the University of Illinois, IL, USA, and Lancaster Environment Centre, UK, describe how the yield of cassava, a staple food crop for more than 600 million people worldwide, hasn’t increased since 1961. In their review they explore the potential for improving yields through photosynthesis, along with other aspects of physiology, in cassava.

“We found cassava is photosynthesizing far below its theoretical limit,” first author De Souza said. “If we can improve photosynthesis, we might gain large sustainable increases in the yield of this important crop.”

Image: Cassava (Manihot esculenta) leaf canopy. Physiological yield improvement of this key Sub-Saharan crop reviewed in DeSouza et al. (pp. 50-65) Courtesy of 'The Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency (RIPE) Project'.
Cassava (Manihot esculenta) leaf canopy. Physiological yield improvement of this key Sub-Saharan crop reviewed in DeSouza et al. (pp. 50-65) Courtesy of ‘The Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency (RIPE) Project‘.

By studying modern cultivars of cassava, the researchers found that the efficiency with which photosynthetically active radiation (PAR) is intercepted by the plant canopy, and the efficiency with which that PAR is then converted into biomass, showed potential for improvement. This could increase the crop’s genetic yield potential, which ultimately sets the ceiling for how much biomass can be produced at a given location, after improvements in pest and drought tolerance and fertiliser use.

“Cassava is so important to so many people, yet while we have seen massive efforts to scientifically understand and improve the yields of other crops, in comparison cassava has been neglected,” said author Steve Long. “Here we have summarised and integrated scientific knowledge of the crop as a basis for understanding how sustainable yield improvement might be achieved and to identify critical gaps in knowledge.”

The Tansley review is part of the Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency (RIPE) project, a multi-institutional research initiative that aims to improve photosynthesis in cassava and other staple food crops in developing countries to sustainably increase global food productivity.

Read the paper: De Souza, A. P., Massenburg, L. N., Jaiswal, D., Cheng, S., Shekar, R. and Long, S. P. (2017), Rooting for cassava: insights into photosynthesis and associated physiology as a route to improve yield potential. New Phytologist, 213: 50–65. doi:10.1111/nph.14250

This post contains elements of a press release, originally published here.

Mike Whitfield
Development Coordinator
New Phytologist