Feeding and Fueling the World with Harvested Sunlight

Washington DC – infoZine – The ultimate goal of this potentially high-impact research is to develop methods to increase yields of important crops that are harvested for food and sustainable biofuels. But if this research is successful, it may also be used to… support reforestation efforts and efforts to increase the productivity of trees for the manufacture of wood and paper and thousands of other products that are derived from wood and chemicals extracted from trees. Another reason why photosynthesis is an important research topic: It has made the Earth hospitable for life by generating food and oxygen.

A photosynthesizing organism uses sunlight and carbon dioxide to produce sugars that fuel the organism and release oxygen. But photosynthesis is a relatively inefficient process, usually capturing only about 5 percent of available energy, depending on how efficiency is measured. Nevertheless, some species of plants, algae and bacteria have evolved efficiency-boosting mechanisms that reduce energy losses or enhance carbon dioxide delivery to cells during photosynthesis.

Three research teams–each comprised of scientists from the United States and the United Kingdom–have been awarded a second round of funding to continue research on news ways to improve the efficiency of photosynthesis. Video: Seeing Photosynthesis from Space.

Each of the three funded research teams is working, in a new and unique way, to improve, combine or engineer these types of efficiency-boosting mechanisms, so they may eventually be conferred on important crops that provide food or sustainable biofuels. The three refunded projects are:

Plug-and-play photosynthesis led by Anne Jones of Arizona State University: Some single-celled microbes capture solar energy and convert it to fuel for self-replication. Plug-and-play photosynthesis aims to distribute the capture and conversion of energy to two environments, so that each environment can be optimized for maximum efficiency for its role.

The plug-and-play team’s overall goal is to capture unused energy, which would otherwise be dissipated, from a light-capturing photosynthetic cell–and transfer it to a second cell for fuel production. One way to carry out this energy transfer is to repurpose bacterial nanowires, which are tiny, electrically conductive wires that are present in some bacteria for reasons that are not yet completely understood.

Multi-Level Approaches for Generating Carbon Dioxide (MAGIC) led by John Golbeck of Pennsylvania State University: MAGIC is aimed at engineering a light-driven carbon dioxide pump that will increase the availability of carbon dioxide to an enzyme that promotes photosynthesis and will thereby increase photosynthetic efficiency.

Combining Algal and Plant Photosynthesis (CAPP) led by Martin Jonikas of Stanford University: Chlamydomonas, a unicellular algae, has a pyrenoid–a ball-shaped structure that helps the algae assimilate carbon to improve its photosynthetic efficiency. CAPP is aiming to, for the first time, transplant the algal pyrenoid and its associated components into higher plants–with hopes of improving these plants’ photosynthetic efficiency and thus their productivity.

So far, the team has identified novel components of the pyrenoid. It has also made progress towards the development of a protein-based sensor that will be used to compare levels of bicarbonate in several cellular compartments in algae. This sensor will be used to help explain the algae’s carbon concentrating mechanism and help evaluate the pyrenoid’s effectiveness after it has been transplanted into higher plants.

The second round of funding to the three refunded research teams is from the U.S.’s National Science Foundation (NSF) and the U.K.’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). This funding will total almost $9 million over three years. Each team is receiving additional funding because of the significant progress it achieved via its initial round of funding, which was also jointly awarded by NSF and the BBSRC in 2011.

 

Photo caption: Seeing photosynthesis from space. Photo courtesy of NASA

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View original article at: Feeding and Fueling the World with Harvested Sunlight

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