When most people are thinking about retiring, Stephen Long is gearing up to tackle one of the most important projects of his career, improving the efficiency of photosynthesis—a goal that could increase the yield of staple food crops by as much as 60 percent to the benefit of farmers and consumers worldwide.
“It's what interests me," said Long, a Gutgsell Endowed Professor of Plant Biology and Crop Sciences at the University of Illinois and member of the Genomic Ecology of Global Change theme at the Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB). "I couldn't imagine doing anything else. When I lose interest, that will be when I stop. Delivering improved yields through photosynthesis—that’s what I want to see accomplished here to really show we can do this on a significant scale.”
Long is the project director of “Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency” or RIPE, a project that is funded by a five-year, $25 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
“Everyone knows what a fantastic example the foundation has set in addressing food supply, particularly for poor farmers in Africa and Southeast Asia,” he said. “I believe you can see them as really a model supporter of this critically important area of food supply.”
Ensuring the world’s food supply has always been at the heart of Long’s career. He can remember a time before the Green Revolution when food scarcity and famines claimed millions of lives. “I wanted to save the world so I went to study agriculture,” he said.
He earned his bachelor’s degree in agricultural botany from Reading University and went to work in the private sector for one year. At Tate and Lyle, Long quickly realized that he would need a doctoral degree if he was going to run his own research.
Three years later, he acquired his doctorate in plant sciences from Leeds University and became a lecturer in environmental physiology at the University of Essex. After more than 20 years at the University of Essex, Long decided to make the 4,000-mile move to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
“Illinois has been the world leader in photosynthesis for 50 years,” he said. “So if you work in photosynthesis, this is the place you want to be.”
At Illinois, he led the establishment of the SoyFACE, or Soybean Free Air Concentration Enrichment, facility to grow crops under production field conditions with increased levels of carbon dioxide and ozone, higher temperatures and altered soil water availability.
Later he served at the first Deputy Director of the Energy Biosciences Institute, a $500 million project funded by global energy company BP to develop sustainable biofuels, before launching his latest initiative to improve the efficiency of photosynthesis.
Throughout his career, Long has been captivated by photosynthesis. “Photosynthesis is a major gap in crop improvement,” he said. “There has been very little photosynthetic improvement in crops yet it’s the fundamental process for gaining biomass. It's where all our food comes from initially.”
As a doctoral student, he discovered the first plant in a temperate climate to undergo C4 photosynthesis, a process that allows plants to lose minimal water and maximize sugar production due to modified anatomies and chemical pathways. Later, he discovered that miscanthus, another C4 plant, can be fruitful in a temperate climate, essentially putting the emerging and promising biofuel on the map.
“It wasn't actually being considered a crop in the U.S. until we set up our trials here,” Long said. “The key thing we really showed was that Miscanthus was very productive, considerably more productive than switchgrass, which had really been the major bioenergy crop being considered in the U.S.”
Over the last 10 years, Long has been working to disprove the idea that improving the efficiency of photosynthesis won’t increase crop yields through research conducted at the SoyFACE facility. By manipulating carbon dioxide and boosting photosynthesis, Long was able to achieve increased yields in all of the major food crops.
He also pioneered modeling the full photosynthetic process in silico, or via computer simulation, providing a unique engineering framework for predicting how photosynthetic efficiency in crops may be improved through the RIPE research project.
On May 3, 2013, Long’s lifelong work was recognized when he was elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society, the world’s oldest scientific academy in continuous existence.
“The Royal Society was just a few miles from where I was brought up in London,” Long said. “Its fame as the meeting place of the leaders and best-known names in science, engineering and medicine was known to us in high school and throughout my career, but I could never have imagined to one day be a part of this institution. As a Londoner by birth it is a very special honor. Of course this recognition owes much to the many amazing graduate students, research fellows and academic colleagues at Essex and at Illinois who have worked with me, discussed, critiqued, supported and helped develop the ideas that have led to the discoveries recognized here.”
The Royal Society, founded in the 1660s, consists of distinguished members of scientific, engineering, and medical disciplines, with a fundamental purpose "to recognize, promote, and support excellence in science and to encourage the development and use of science for the benefit of humanity."
Long will join other notable Fellows including Albert Einstein, Dorothy Hodgkin, Isaac Newton, Stephen Hawking, Charles Darwin, Francis Crick, and James Watson with this recognition. Only 40 or so new members are elected each year from a group of over 700 candidates proposed by the existing Fellowship.
“I guess I've been lucky,” Long said. “I love what I do and I think that's a big factor. I've been lucky enough to work on my hobby for 40 years.”
This article originally appeared in the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology magazine, Biomarker.