Grow in the dark: photosynthesis that doesn’t require sunlight

BioTechniques News
Beatrice Bowlby

Researchers have developed an electrocatalytic process to allow plants to undergo photosynthesis without sunlight. This form of artificial photosynthesis may increase the efficiency with which food crops are raised.  

It is well understood that plants need water, carbon dioxide and sunlight to grow. However, only 1% of sunlight is absorbed by plants, making biological photosynthesis wildly inefficient. Researchers from the University of California Riverside (UC Riverside; CA, USA) in conjunction with the University of Delaware (DE, USA) have developed an artificial photosynthetic process that does not require sunlight. By being able to grow plants efficiently in the dark, agricultural practices may shift to lessen their environmental impact and reduce their dependence on appropriate weather conditions, ultimately contributing to global food security.  

Due to changes in climate and the growing population, ensuring a plentiful supply of food is becoming more difficult. Additionally, urbanization has reduced the available hospitable land for growing crops. To bypass the climate and urbanization issues, researchers set out to find a way of delivering nutrients to plants in a controlled environment without sunlight.  

Using electrolyzers, they converted carbon dioxide, water and electricity into acetate, which could then be taken up by plants in the dark. The electricity needed for acetate production was supplied by a more efficient energy source than raw sunlight, solar panels.  

Researchers demonstrated that food-producing organisms, such as algae, yeast and fungal mycelium, grew reliably in the dark acetate environment in the absence of biological photosynthesis. “Typically, these organisms are cultivated on sugars derived from plants or inputs derived from petroleum—which is a product of biological photosynthesis that took place millions of years ago. This technology is a more efficient method of turning solar energy into food, as compared to food production that relies on biological photosynthesis,” reported co-lead author Elizabeth Hann (UC Riverside; CA, USA). 

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They also investigated the potential to use artificial photosynthesis to grow crop plants, including tomato, rice, canola and tobacco. “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. 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,” suggests co-lead author Marcus Harland-Dunaway (UC Riverside; CA, USA).  

Artificial photosynthesis provides an exciting opportunity to efficiently grow more food-producing plants for humans and animals as well as expand the areas in which these plants can be grown, such as urban centers. By mitigating the effects of climate change and artificially creating nutrient-rich environments, agriculture could potentially undergo a positive shift to sustain the global population.  

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