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Taking a leap forward with Artificial Photosynthesis

Photo by Clay Banks

As we know it all life on earth eventually gets its energy from the sun through the incredible capacity of plants to hold on to nothing more than water air and sunlight

Researchers have now taken a big step towards imbuing synthetic life with the same capabilities.

While most living things rely on grazing scavenging or hunting for food plants are able to make their own food through photosynthesis the carbon-based molecules formed by this process are the foundations on which all the diversity of nature is founded if we could leverage and even possibly reinvent this mechanism it could hold a huge promise for everything from the synthetization of useful molecules like drugs to the creation of biological systems that can absorb CO2 from the atmosphere due to climate change and most excitingly it might open the door to the development of genuinely self-sustaining artificial life forms.

Photosynthesis requires a complex interplay of multiple enzyme pathways so attempts to reproduce it by humans have produced mixed results but German and French researchers have come up with a clever way of making synthetic versions of chloroplasts which are specialized organelles where photosynthesis occurs.

In order to make artificial organelles the team used microfluidics to build cell-sized water droplets suspended in oil which served as self-contained compartments where all the critical reactions could take place. Although nature has come up with many different chemical mechanisms for taking carbon from co2 in the air and fixing it into organic compounds, the researchers have chosen to focus on a synthetic alternative made up of 16 enzymes previously designed by other researchers.

But they coupled this with the sheet-like membranes of thylakoids the structures inside the chloroplast were the light dependent sections of the photosynthesis take place that had been collected from spinach plants. In a science paper, the researchers stated that these hybrid synthetic and artificial systems were able to fix carbon in the presence of light much like a plant. They also argue that the technique may be more effective than natural photosynthesis because it does not require photorespiration a wasteful byproduct of natural pathways that use oxygen to generate co2.

This advance marks an important step towards the development of a synthetic plant-like cell.

The ability to harvest light energy and fix co2 in multi-carbon compounds creates an essential foundation for technologies that will be used in many other areas from small molecules or drug synthesis in artificial bioreactors to the development of an artificial biological carbon sequestration system.

They point out that there is considerable scope for pairing the system with other cell-free pathways developed by synthetic biologists that can synthesize proteins which would be a step towards a light-powered self-replicating synthetic system.

The authors note that the automated approach used to construct their synthetic chloroplast makes it possible to quickly reprogram and evaluate new pathways both natural and synthetic. This could make it possible to prototype new metabolic processes before synthetic biologists implant them into cells or to serve as a test bed for a fully synthetic life.

Energy production is only one of the many capabilities that researchers would need to master if they are to create a fully man-made cell such as self-repair and reproduction. But the work of the writers is a major step toward creating artificial life from the bottom up.




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Semi Sentient Sentinel

Semi Sentient Sentinel

A Curious Illusion created by time dilation gradient writing about everything that has happened, happening and will happen in the universe.