Photosynthesis is one of nature’s most useful chemical reactions, so it’s no surprise that scientists often try to mimic photosynthesis. Now, researchers from the Max Planck Institute have developed a new way to create a hybrid synthetic living cell that can use photosynthesis to remove carbon dioxide from the air using photosynthesis.
Tiny organelles called chlorophyrs are embedded inside the leaves of plants. These cells are the machines behind photosynthesis, which absorb sunlight and create molecules that plants can use to make energy by consuming water and carbon dioxide collected by plants. Now, the Max Planck Institute team has created thousands of artificial leafy greens. In this case, the researchers’ goal is not the output of energy, but the “side effects” of removing carbon dioxide from the air.
The researchers first isolated the chlorophyll from spinach — the active part of the plant photosynthesis system. They then paired it with an artificial metabolic module called the CETCH Cycle, which consists of 18 biocatalysts that convert carbon dioxide much more efficiently than the plant itself.
Finally, these natural and artificial ingredients are combined into cell-sized droplets, holding everything together. This is done with a microfluidic system that puts water droplets into a medium that is mainly oil. Using the technology, the team says, it’s easy and quick to create thousands of such droplets and adjust the ability of some as needed.
“We can create thousands of water droplets with the same equipment, or we can give individual droplets specific properties,” said Tarryn Miller, lead author of the study. “These can be controlled by light in time and space. In the tests, the researchers found that newly designed droplets were 100 times faster to bind to carbon dioxide than other semi-synthetic photosynthesis systems.
Other manual and hybrid photosynthesis systems have played a role in reducing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere or producing energy, drugs and fuels. The team says the newly designed droplets could eventually solve the same problem.
The study was published in the journal Science.