Today’s Solutions: August 11, 2022

Plants use a special natural process called photosynthesis to grow, mature, flower, and produce fruit. Photosynthesis is the way in which plants absorb energy from sunlight and use it to make their own food out of carbon dioxide and water. 

For years, scientists have been investigating this incredible process and working on improving it, as natural photosynthesis only ends up integrating three to six percent of the sun’s energy into the plant.

Now, scientists have developed artificial photosynthesis, which performs much more efficiently to grow “artificial leaves.” These artificial leaves can then be used to create environmentally friendly products such as hydrogen fuel, syngas, methanol, alternatives to plastic, and even drug molecules!

How does artificial photosynthesis work?

To bypass the natural process of photosynthesis, the scientists isolated acetate, the main component of vinegar. Acetate was then fed to the plants as a carbon source. The scientists behind this project tested this technique on a range of crop plants and food-producing microbes like yeast, green algae, fungal mycelium, cowpea, tomato, tobacco, rice, canola, and green pea.

All these organisms were able to grow in an acetate medium—even without sunlight! In fact, for some crops like algae and yeast, the plants grew more efficiently (four times more efficiently for algae and an impressive 18 times more efficiently for yeast) without sunlight.

“We found that a wide range of crops could take the acetate we provided and build it into the major molecular building blocks an organism needs to grow and thrive,” explains Marcus Harland-Dunaway, co-lead author of the study. “With some breeding and engineering that we are currently working on we might be able to grow crops with acetate as an extra energy source to boost crop yields.”

Why is this important?

Removing the need for direct sunlight in growing crops could help agriculture flourish in regions with challenging conditions and little access to land, which will in turn address the problem of hunger and food deserts.

Crops could be efficiently grown in cities, or even on other planets!

“Using artificial photosynthesis approaches to produce food could be a paradigm shift for how we feed people,” says corresponding author of the study Robert Jinkerson. “By increasing the efficiency of food production, less land is needed, lessening the impact agriculture has on the environment. And for agriculture in non-traditional environments, like outer space, the increased energy efficiency could help feed more crew members with fewer inputs.”

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