Photosynthesis For Clean Bioenergy Studied

We’ve seen several instances of science imitating nature in an effort to generate new sources of energy. The artificial leaf is an excellent example of that strategy. This, however, is a story about how science wants to improve nature in an effort to address a growing population and dwindling fossil fuel resources. According to an announcement by the National Science Foundation (NSF), $10.3 million is being awarded to scientists to support scientifically engineered improvements of  the process of biological photosynthesis.

The funds come from a collaboration between the NSF and the U.K. Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and are being divided amongst four transatlantic research teams which the organizations identified as the most promising candidates for managing to “overcome limitations in photosynthesis that could lead to the development of new methods for significantly increasing the yields of important crops for food production and/or sustainable bioenergy.”

image via NSF/Moritz Meyer, University of Cambridge

The two agencies used a method that they call “Ideas Lab” to vet the most promising ideas and research teams. The workshop posed long-standing questions on how to enhance photosynthesis and encouraged participants to develop new ideas on how to address the issues. The result was a bunch of high-risk but potentially high-impact proposals that could increase the efficiency of photosynthesis. In the end, four research teams were chosen to receive the funds, each one with a different focus on addressing “bottlenecks” in photosynthesis. Here’s a breakdown of each of those four teams and their projects:

  1. Anne Jones of Arizona State University leads the “Plug and Play Photosynthesis” project. The focus is on separating the capture and conversion of solar energy into fuel (a process that is carried out by a single cell) into two different organisms that would communicate with one another through electrical currents flowing between them.
  2. Stephen Long of the University of Illinois runs “Exploiting Prokaryotic Proteins to Improve Plant Photosynthesis Efficiency” (EPP)- their focus is on a metabolic process called  photorespiration which reduces the yields of plants by up to 50%. The team has identified protein structures in some blue-green algae that show promise in reducing the loss, thus increasing plant yield.
  3. John Golbeck of Pennsylvania State University oversees Multi-Level Approaches for Generating Carbon Dioxide (MAGIC). Their project also addresses photorespiration by proposing to attach special proteins to photosynthesizing cells that will pump carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into cells.
  4. Finally, Martin Jonikas of Stanford University runs Combining Algal and Plant Photosynthesis (CAPP). They propose to use a ball-shaped structure within the cells of green algae and move it to other plants so that they can better assimilate carbon and improve photosynthesis efficiency.