A new form of photosynthesis could help us grow plants on other planets like Mars

[USA] Photosynthesis, the process of converting light into energy, is such a key part of any plant that the idea of “finding a new photosynthesis” sounds bizarre.

But until now, scientists’ understanding of plant photosynthesis was that plants could only absorb visible light on the spectrum, specifically harvesting red light – this is commonly referred to as the “red limit”. But a team of researchers at Imperial College London in the United Kingdom have discovered a new type of photosynthesis that allows life to use near-infrared light as well.

The new research, just published in the journal Science, completely redefines how we should be searching for life in new areas, whether here on Earth or off-world. If flora can survive without visible light, it opens up a whole lot more places we could search to see if life has found a way there.

For the time being, the researchers are content with letting life grow using this method inside of a cupboard at the university. This near-infrared photosynthesis was found inside a wide range of blue-green colored algae called “cyanobacteria”, and the team is successfully growing a sample of the algae using only infrared LED lights, “beyond the red limit” of what was previously thought possible.

A key thing to note is that this type of photosynthesis only happens under low-light conditions, and the algae will perform photosynthesis normally under conditions when enough light is present. That’s because normal photosynthesis is largely carried out by the green pigment chlorophyll-a, but under the right conditions, another pigment called chlorophyll-f can also perform this near-infrared version instead.

Either way, it’s an important find. Bill Rutherford, a co-author on the new research and a professor of life sciences at Imperial College London, said the following in a press release from the university:

“The new form of photosynthesis made us rethink what we thought was possible. It also changes how we understand the key events at the heart of standard photosynthesis. This is textbook changing stuff.”

Using this new knowledge of how to keep plants alive under harsh conditions, it could help us set up plant colonies on other planets. Astrobiologists frequently use the red limit to determine whether other planets or moons could successfully grow plant life, but that’s not as limiting as we once thought.

In the future, we could use algae capable of near-infrared photosynthesis to more easily set up plant colonies on neighboring planets like Mars, where they could produce valuable oxygen for the humans who’d also ideally be colonizing the Red Planet.

And if that works out, we could be sending algae along with lots of future space missions to ensure the astronauts can breathe in their new homes.


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