The pressure on natural photosynthetic systems and exhaustion of fossil stocks make direct mimicking of photosynthesis a key goal. The reaction is purely electrochemical- there is no vitalist living magic about it, so we ought to be able to copy it.
There are many current strategies but the most promising and imaginative is Carlo Montemagno’s. He has harnessed modules from three totally separate living systems – the universal ATP energy motor from bacteria; the light harvesting pigment bacteriorhodopsin from Halbacterium salinarium and a remarkable foam from the Tungara frog. Lest you think that since these are all from living systems, life is required, Montemagno has created the same effect using block copolymers instead of the foam. The advantage of the foam is that one can now envisage huge vats of foam photosynthesis plants, with the glucose being drawn off for further processing.
These separate systems work happily together, with light and simple phosphates, to build biomass. Industrialised, these light-harvesting biomass-creating foams could operate in barren regions, leaving fertile land for food production.
In March, Montemagno’s foam won the $50,000 Earth Award.
It is high time we learnt this trick. Rather shamingly,another animal has beaten us to the goal of exploiting photosynthesis. The sea slug Elysia chlorotica feeds on algae and it has evolved to incorporate some of the algal genes, allowing it to live without feeding. The slugs are appropriately green in colour. .
We don’t have to turn our own bodies green but the slugs show that the plants’ trick can be harnessed outside the plant context. Perhaps we should pension off the world “sluggish” and get ourselves up to pace with light harvesting.