Articles, Blog

Rewriting evolutionary history: cyborg bacteria for high-efficiency photosynthesis

January 7, 2020

If you ever have the chance to go back in time and change history don’t worry about whatever might happen
in the upcoming election, there are much bigger fish to fry. Go back three billion years, to the biggest
mistake in evolutionary history. Three billion years ago, chlorophyll — the light
absorbing molecule in plants that powered photosynthesis — popped into
existence, and from there all of our troubles stemmed. While the rate at which plants photosynthesized food and fuels from carbon dioxide and sunlight has
sufficed for the last three billion years. Within the last 100 years we’ve become
acutely aware that plant struggle to feel our exponentially growing
population. And chlorophyll’s inability to absorb a lot of sunlight is
largely to blame. At best chlorophyll only absorbs 12 percent of the
sun’s energy and in actuality, plants generally muster efficiency in the range of less than one percent. Obviously this is no longer good enough. In contrast, modern day solar panels
now average efficiencies in the range of 15 to 20 percent, although they do remain
fairly expensive to produce. If you have the chance to go back in time
and change history fix chlorophyll. But barring that magical ability you may
turn to the amalgamation of chemistry and biology that is my research. Over the
past few years I developed an alternative, better version of photosynthesis
called artificial photosynthesis. Rather than rely on inefficient
chlorophyll to harvest sunlight, I’ve taught bacteria how to grow and cover their bodies
with tiny semiconductor nanocrystals which are much more efficient than
chlorophyll and can be grown at a fraction of the cost of manufacturing
conventional solar panels. Once covered with these essentially tiny solar panels these bacterial army will grow, and photosynthesize food, fuels, pharmaceuticals and plastics. All utilizing solar energy. These bacteria
already outperform natural photosynthesis and as I teach them to
grow different types of solar panels these bacteria’s efficiencies are only
expected to go higher. These cyborg bacteria, this combination of chemistry
and biology, living and non-living, serves as the first step and there lies an
alternative and arguably better evolutionary history. One in which we are
not limited by chlorophyll’s inefficiencies, and one that will allow us to grow and evolve for many
generations to come. With the power to will both chemistry and biology in tandem
to readdress historical and evolutionary missteps, the question now becomes
what do we fix next. Thank you.

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