Capturing the Magic of Photosynthesis

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Capturing the Magic of Photosynthesis

Except for so-called thermophiles, every organism on this planet depends either directly or indirectly on photosynthesis for its nourishment. Equally important, the atmospheric oxygen we breathe was produced by photosynthesis.

Meanwhile, the photosynthetic process works to limit the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Similarly, every energy source other than hydro, wind, photovoltaic, and nuclear fission/fusion is made possible by photosynthesis. Furthermore, many drugs and other economically crucial materials are produced as by-products of photosynthesis.

So it should come as no surprise that scientists are busy learning to recreate, optimize, and enhance this crucial natural process.

Some of this research falls into the realm of bio-engineering, where researchers attempt to radically improve how nature uses photosynthesis. Other research falls into the fields of chemistry, physics, and nanotechnology, where the focus is on creating artificial mechanisms that build on nature's capabilities.

Over the past decade, enormous strides have been made using both approaches, and many exciting commercial applications will emerge over the next five to ten years.

Let's start with the work being done to turn plants into clean, super-efficient chemical bio-factories that manufacture high-value ingredients for medicines, fabrics, fuels, and other products.

This is possible because photosynthesis does a lot more than transform carbon dioxide and water into sugar, oxygen, and energy. It also produces a wealth of natural chemical compounds, many of which have uses in medicines and other commercial products.

However, nature has compartmentalized the two types of photosynthetic functions into separate areas of plant cells:

  • One compartment is characterized by the chloroplasts, the packets of chlorophyll that make plants green, generate energy, and produce sugar and oxygen.
  • The second compartment is represented by the endoplasmic reticulum, which produces a wide range of natural chemicals.

As recently reported in the journal ACS Synthetic Biology, Danish researchers have succeeded in breaking down the natural compartmentalization by relocating an entire metabolic pathway needed for production of natural bio-active chemicals to the chloroplast.

This opens the avenue for light-driven synthesis of a vast array of other natural chemicals in the chloroplast, including natural chemicals that could be used as ingredients in medications.

Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Cambridge are working on improving natural photosynthesis in order to make new fuels and boost crop production...

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