Could Discovery of New Chlorophyll Give Plants the (Red) Edge in Solar Race?
Image courtesy of tamhistory1 via flickr
It may not have the same zesty appeal as the human genome sequencing project - or, heck, even that of the common fruit fly - but the recent sequencing of Acaryochloris marina, a cyanobacterium that appears in the South Pacific, could have comparably significant ramifications for the life sciences - and solar energy. In so doing, the international team of researchers discovered the presence of chlorophyll d, an extremely rare form of chlorophyll that allows the cyanobacterium to absorb light in the near IR region, or "red edge."
They believe Acaryochloris is unique in this respect; as a result, it holds a huge competitive advantage over other plants and bacteria that photosynthesize primarily by using chlorophyll a and b. Led by Robert Blankenship of the Washington University in St. Louis, the scientists are now hard at work finding the enzyme that causes the chemical structure change in chlorophyll d. They will insert several candidate genes into organisms that produce only chlorophyll a - the underlying reasoning being that any organism that then synthesizes chlorophyll d will have done so with the help of one of the genes. Such a finding could potentially revolutionize the production of solar energy: According to Blankenship, it might become possible to harvest solar power through plants or other photosynthetic organisms by genetically modifying them with the chlorophyll d gene. This could lead to the creation of solar power "factories" that are able to make and store large amounts of solar energy:
"Consider a seven-foot tall corn plant genetically tailored with the chlorophyll d gene to be expressed at the very base of the stalk. While the rest of the plant synthesized chlorophyll a, absorbing short wave light, the base is absorbing "red edge" light in the 710 nanometer range. Energy could be stored in the base without competing with any other part of the plant for photosynthesis, as the rest only makes chlorophyll a."
The larger implications of this for the renewable energy industry would be substantial: Genetically altered biofuel crops, which would boast much more efficient rates of photosynthesis, could become enormous repositories of energy and provide a viable alternative source.