The US National Science Foundation (NSF) and the US Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) have collaborated in awarding funding to scientists in the US and UK totaling more than $10.3 million to improve the process of biological photosynthesis. NSF is contributing a total of $5.2 million to support US participants in these projects.
Four transatlantic research teams will explore ways 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. This research, notes the BBSRC, could lead to a blueprint to make a fully artificial leaf capable of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Three of the research projects will focus on improving a reaction driven by an enzyme called RuBisCO—a widely recognized bottleneck in the photosynthesis pathway. By attempting to transfer parts from algae and bacteria into plants, the researchers hope to make the environment in the plants’ cells around RuBisCO richer in carbon dioxide which will allow photosynthesis to produce sugars more efficiently.
The fourth project aims to harness the excess light energy that reaches photosynthetic organisms but cannot be used due to bottlenecks in natural photosynthesis. This project aims to transfer high energy electrons from a cyanobacterial cell where there is excess that would otherwise be turned to heat to an adjacent cell which will be engineered to produce food or fuel products.
Summaries of the four funded projects are:
Plug and Play Photosynthesis led by Anne Jones of Arizona State University: This project is designed to separate the capture and conversion of solar energy into fuel—processes that may be completed by a single cell—into two different organisms that would communicate with one another through electrical currents flowing between them. This separation of photosynthetic processes into different organisms will enable researchers to optimize environments for each of these processes and thereby improve their efficiency.
Exploiting Prokaryotic Proteins to Improve Plant Photosynthesis Efficiency (EPP) led by Stephen Long of the University of Illinois: A metabolic process known as photorespiration reduces the yields of plants including major crops, such as soy, wheat and rice, by an estimated 20% to 50%. Some blue-green algae have protein structures, called carboxysomes, that reduce such losses. This research aims to adapt and engineer these protein structures into crop plants to minimize photorespiration and boost yield.
Multi-Level Approaches for Generating Carbon Dioxide (MAGIC) led by John Golbeck of Pennsylvania State University: Through this project, researchers will attach to the membranes of photosynthesizing cells special proteins that will pump carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into cells. Resulting increases in the availability of carbon dioxide inside these cells will inhibit photorespiration and promote photosynthesis.
Combining Algal and Plant Photosynthesis (CAPP) led by Martin Jonikas of Stanford University: The unicellular green alga Chlamydomonas has a pyrenoid—a ball-shaped structure within the cell that helps this algae assimilate carbon to improve its photosynthetic efficiency. The goal of this project is to characterize the pyrenoid and associated components, and transfer them to higher plants in order to improve their photosynthetic efficiency.
The funding agencies used a method called an Ideas Lab that led to these awards. Ideas Labs are based on the Sandpit concept initially developed by the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council (EPSRC) and are designed to stimulate new conversations about old problems.
In September 2010, an Ideas Lab was held in Asilomar, Calif. that focused on stimulating thinking in promising new, or currently under-developed, research areas relevant to photosynthesis. The workshop’s goals were to develop innovative and transformative ideas on how to enhance photosynthesis through a multi-disciplinary approach and to bring together researchers to explore new and exciting avenues for future research in photosynthesis across all disciplines.
The result was the generation and real-time review of high-risk but potentially high-impact proposals for increasing the efficiency of photosynthesis.