Artificial Photosynthesis – A Case of Biomimicry

Humans have long sought solutions to their problems by observing nature and trying to mimic it. These endeavors have lead to improvements in the designs and production processes of countless things. In recent decades there has been a growing movement composed of scientists, engineers, and innovators of all types to expressly seek for answers to today’s most pressing problems by deeply observing and analyzing the natural world. These efforts are coupled with a desire to learn how to work with nature rather than against it in an attempt to secure a more sustainable future for life on Earth. This is the essence of biomimicry.

To this end, plants have much to teach us. Everything from their basic forms and functions to the way they fight off pests and diseases to the way they communicate with each other is worth exploring for biomimicry purposes. A plant-based phenomenon that has probably received the most attention – and for good reason – is photosynthesis, the process that enables plants to use the sun to make food.

Put another way, photosynthesis is the process of converting light energy into chemical energy. Specialized proteins in plant cells absorb particles of light which initiates the passing of electrons across a series of molecules. Subsequently, water is split by a protein complex into oxygen and hydrogen protons. The oxygen is released from the plant, while the electrons and hydrogen protons go on to help generate two compounds – NADPH and ATP – which are later used to power the reaction that transforms atmospheric carbon dioxide into sugars. The concept of photosynthesis, while fairly simple to grasp from a high level (i.e. light + water + carbon dioxide = sugars + oxygen), is actually quite complex, and there is still much too discover concerning it.

photo credit: wikimedia commons

photo credit: wikimedia commons

One thing is certain, photosynthesis is ubiquitous. As long as the sun is overhead, most plants, algae, and cyanobacteria are photosynthesizing at a steady clip and are thereby helping to power just about every other living organism on the planet. Without plants, most of the rest of us could not survive. Janine M. Benyus offers this human-centric view in her book Biomimicry:

Consider that everything we consume, from a carrot stick to a peppercorn filet, is the product of plants turning sunlight into chemical energy. Our cars, our computers, our Christmas tree lights all feed on photosynthesis as well, because the fossil fuels they use are merely the compressed remains of 600 million years worth of plants and animals that grew their bodies with sunlight. All of our petroleum-born plastics, pharmaceuticals and chemicals also spring from the loins of ancient photosynthesis. … Plants gather our solar energy for us and store it as fuel. To release that energy, we burn the plants or plant products, either internally, inside our cells, or externally, with fire.

Since plants are so well-versed in using sunlight to create food and energy, it only makes sense that we would look to them to learn how we might improve and expand upon our quest for renewable energy production. We already use the sun to produce electricity by way of photovoltaic systems; however, these systems are limited in that they can only produce electricity when the sun is shining, and electricity is difficult to store. Artificial photosynthesis involves using that electricity to power catalysts that can split water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen can be used as a fuel or can be fed into reactions involving carbon dioxide, ultimately resulting in a carbon-based fuel source. Fuels produced this way – referred to as solar fuels – could be stored and used regardless of whether or not the sun is out.

Artificial photosynthesis has largely moved beyond the theoretical stage. Multiple efforts have demonstrated ways in which water can be split using the light of the sun and solar fuels can thereby be produced. Mass production is the next step, and that is where the real limitations lie. The production of solar fuels has to be done cheaply enough to compete with other available fuels, and the infrastructure to use such fuels has to be available. These hurdles may very well be overcome, but it will take time. Meanwhile, research continues, adding to the mountains of studies already published.

photo credit: wikimedia commons

photo credit: wikimedia commons

On such study published in 2011 describes an “artificial leaf” that was developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by Daniel Nocera and a team of researchers. Listen to an interview with Nocera on Science Friday and watch this BBC Worldwide video to learn more about this discovery. This Nature article explains why the artificial leaf is not yet commercially available, and why we are not likely to see it any time soon.

Another development in artificial photosynthesis was published earlier this year in Nano Letters. It is the product of Peidong Yang and the Kavli Energy NanoSciences Institute. While Nocera and his team stopped at the production of hydrogen gas, Yang’s lab added bacteria to the mix and were able to use the sun’s energy to transform carbon dioxide into acetate. If passed along to another species of bacteria, the acetate could be used to produce various synthetic fuels. Learn more about this by reading this livescience article and watching this FW: Thinking video. As with other artificial photosynthesis developments, limitations abound, but the research is promising.

Artificial photosynthesis is a compelling subject and one worth keeping an eye on. Follow the links below to learn more:

Biomimicry is an equally compelling subject and one I hope to explore further in future Awkward Botany posts. Meanwhile, check out these links:

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Speaking of Food: A Recap

The theme for the past 15 posts has been the October 2014 Special Issue of American Journal of Botany, Speaking of Food: Connecting Basic and Applied Plant Science. After a brief introduction to the issue, I spent the next 14 posts (spanning a period of 5 weeks) reading and writing summaries of each of the 17 articles. If you actually read every post, you are a champion in my eyes, and I probably owe you a prize of some sort. And even if you just read one or two, thank you, and I hope you found value in what you read.

I have to admit that it was kind of a grueling process. Many of the articles, along with being lengthy, included high level discussions that were beyond my current understanding, especially concerning topics like genetics, genomics, and phylogenetics. I learned a lot while reading them, but I am still far from truly grasping many of the concepts. For that reason, I did not feel completely comfortable writing summaries of some of these discussions. I made an effort not to misrepresent or oversimplify the research, but I can’t say for sure that my attempts were always successful. I welcome any criticisms, corrections, complaints, or comments in this regard, and I am open to making edits or updates to any of the posts as necessary. I consider this blog my learning platform, as well as a place to share my phyto-curiosity. Perhaps you find it a place for learning, too?

The main purpose of this post is to provide a Table of Contents for the last 14 posts, something that will make it easier to navigate through this series without having to scroll through each post. If you are interested in reading the entire series (again, you’re a champion), you can access them all in order here by clicking on the titles. Otherwise, you can pick and choose whatever topics interest you the most.

  • On the Origins of Agriculture – A deep dive into plant domestication and the beginnings of agriculture, including the revision of theoretical approaches to thinking about the history of plant domestication and a discussion of emerging methods and tools for exploring early domestication and emerging agriculture.
  • The Legacy of a Leaky Dioecy – Does pre-Colombian management of North American persimmon trees explain why non-dioecious individuals are found in an otherwise dioecious species?
  • Dethroning Industrial Agriculture: The Rise of Agroecology – The environmentally devastating effects of industrial agriculture can and must be replaced by a more sustainable, ecologically-focused from of agriculture. This will require reforming our economic system and rethinking our “one size fits all” approach to scientific research.
  • An Underutilized Crop and the Cousins of a Popular One – Safflower, an underutilized oilseed crop, could be improved by introducing genes from wild relatives. Soybean, a very popular and valuable crop, could also be improved by introducing genes from its perennial cousins.
  • Carrots and Strawberries, Genetics and Phylogenetics – An exploration of the genetics and phylogenetics of carrots and strawberries. Better understanding of their genetics will aid in crop improvements; better understanding of their phylogenetics gives us further insight into the evolution of plants.
  • Exploring Pollination Biology in Southwestern China – A fascinating look at the pollination biology of edible and medicinal plants in southwestern China, revealing significant gaps in scientific understanding and the need for conservation and continued research.
  • Your Food Is a Polyploid – Polyploidy is more prevalent in plants than we once thought. This article examines the role of polyploidy in crop domestication and future crop improvements.
  • Tales of Weedy Waterhemp and Weedy Rice – How agriculture influenced the transition to invasiveness in two important weed species.
  • Cultivated Sunflowers and Their Wild Relatives – An investigation into the flowering times of wild sunflowers reveals potential for improvements in cultivated sunflowers.
  • The Nonshattering Trait in Cereal Crops – Is there a common genetic pathway that controls the shattering/nonshattering trait in cereal crops?
  • Apples and Genetic Bottlenecks – Domestication generally leads to a loss of genetic variation compared to wild relatives, but apples have experienced only a mild loss. That loss may increase as commercial apple production relies on fewer and fewer cultivars.
  • Improving Perennial Crops with Genomics – The nature of perennial crops can be an impediment to breeding efforts, which makes the introduction of new perennial crop varieties both time consuming and costly. Advances in genomics may help change that.
  • Using Wild Relatives to Improve Crop Plants – Crop plants can be improved through the introduction of genes from wild relatives. They could potentially experience even greater improvement through systematic hybridization with wild relatives.
  • Developing Perennial Grain Crops from the Ground Up – Some of the environmental issues resulting from agriculture could be addressed by switching from annual to perennial grain crops, but first they must be developed from wild species.
A small harvest of sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas ' Hong Hong') from this year's backyard mini-farm. Ipomoea batatas ' Hong Hong.'

A small harvest of sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas ‘ Hong Hong’) from this year’s backyard mini-farm.

If I had to pick a favorite article in this issue it would be Think Globally, Research Locally: Paradigms and Place in Agroecological Research (Reynolds et al.). I know I said it in the post, but this article really sums up the reasons why this special issue of AJB is so important. Humans are incredibly resourceful, creative, and resilient, and as we have spread ourselves across the globe and grown our population into the billions, we have found ways to produce enormous amounts of food relatively cheaply. Frankly, the fact that anyone is going hungry or dying of starvation is shameful and appalling as there is plenty of food to go around…for now. But we are doing a lot of things wrong, and the earth is suffering because of it. If the biosphere is in trouble, we are all in trouble. Thus, we are overdue for some major shifts in the way we do things, particularly agriculture as that’s what this series of posts is all about. I advocate for science-based sustainable agriculture, and I am hopeful, thanks to this issue of AJB and other signs I’ve seen recently, that we are moving more in that direction. I’ll step off my soapbox now and leave you with an excerpt from the article by Reynolds, et al.

“There is increasing recognition that the current industrial model of agricultural intensification is unsustainable on numerous grounds. Powered by finite and nonrenewable stores of fossil fuels over the last 200 years, humans have come to see themselves, their technology, and their built environments as controllers of nature rather than interdependent with it, even as our activities threaten to exceed planetary boundaries of resilience in multiple environmental dimensions, such as climate, biodiversity, ozone, and chemical pollution. … In the ‘full world’ we now live in, continuing to use high input, highly polluting methods of food production to support continued economic growth is counterproductive to achieving food security. Continued growth of population and per capita consumption on a finite planet fails to meet the basic requirement of sustainability, that of meeting needs within the regenerative and assimilative capacity of the biosphere. And prolonging the shift to a sustainable economic paradigm risks a harder landing.”

Dethroning Industrial Argiculture: The Rise of Agroecology

This is the third in a series of posts reviewing the 17 articles found in the October 2014 Special Issue of American Journal of Botany, Speaking of Food: Connecting Basic and Applied Science.

Think Globally, Research Locally: Paradigms and Place in Agroecological Research by Heather L. Reynolds, Alex A. Smith, and James R. Farmer

Before I get into the review, I have to say that it is too bad this article was not selected as one of the open access articles. For me, it really sums up the reasons why this special issue exists at all, and it reads like a clarion call for more research, promotion, and implementation of science-based sustainable agriculture. If I could reprint the whole thing here I would, because my poor excuse for a review will not suffice. Unfortunately, in order to read this article (and most of the other articles I am reviewing here), you will have to pay, unless you otherwise have access through a personal or institutional subscription.  The open access debate is a can of worms that I won’t open here…just saying I wish more people could read this.

In their introduction, the authors discuss the “basic to applied science continuum.” Scientists who choose to do research that is more on the applied side of the spectrum may find it easier to secure funding (due to “convincing social benefits”), but will also find themselves directly confronted with social issues and values. There can be some discomfort involved in this, and so scientists must carefully determine their level of engagement. However, “neither social nor ecological systems can be understood in isolation,” and instead “must be studied as an integrated social ecological system.” Applied science must be carried out in order to address pressing socio-ecological issues, and so scientists interested in this type of research should know what they’re getting into and must “consider what societal values and paradigms they are supporting with their research.”

Applied science research involving agriculture finds itself intertwined with an economic paradigm that is focused on growth – “increased production and consumption of goods and services as indicated by increasing gross domestic product.” The authors argue that this is not sustainable and that agricultural research should be guided in directions that are more place-based and that keep the finite nature of the planet in mind.

“Since the 1940’s, agriculture has evolved toward an increasingly industrial, corporate, and globalized model, involving large-scale, centralized monoculture production requiring inputs of highly concentrated (fossil) fuel, machinery, water, and synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.” The Green Revolution brought new crop varieties and inputs that helped increase yields significantly, but also had the result of increasing irrigated land by 97%, “the use of nitrogen by 638%, phosphorous fertilizer by 203%, and pesticides by 845% during the latter half of the 20th century.” Industrial agriculture, while highly productive, is a juggernaut that requires incredible amounts of energy, petrochemicals, and water, and despite it’s best efforts, still doesn’t feed the world. Social and political issues are to blame for the food distribution problem; however, in the meantime, industrial agriculture is having profound effects on the environment, “including soil erosion and degradation, biodiversity loss, and water and air pollution on local and global scales.” Coupled with all of the environmnental costs of industrial agriculture are the social costs: “local agroecological knowledge has…been displaced by the  knowledge embodied in industrial inputs and sophisticated farming equipment and techniques,” and widespread industrial agriculture has been linked to increases in cancer, obesity and other human health issues.

photo credit: wikimedia commons

photo credit: wikimedia commons

The expansion of industrial agriculture has largely been driven by the economic paradigm of the United States and other industrialized nations that is focused on growth above all else. This paradigm neglects to acknowledge the “biophysical limits” of planet Earth – “an inescapably finite place, with a constant rate of net solar income and zero inputs of matter beyond the occasional asteroid.” Growth has its limits, and unless those limits are respected, we will find ourselves in dire straits. A warming climate and an increasing level of extinctions are major signs that we have approached the limit. It is time to rethink things.

The question of how to address this dilemma is incredibly complex. The authors of this study offer two broad solutions: reform our economic system and rethink our scientific research efforts. First, the economic problem. A finite planet cannot abide a growth above all else economic approach. The authors propose evolving towards a steady-state economy, in which “the product of population and per capita consumption mildly fluctuates at a scale for which energy and material throughput at current technological capabilities does not strain or exceed the regenerative and assimilative capacity of Earth’s natural capital.” In this economic system, “overdeveloped” countries like the United States will need to find ways to “strategically degrow.”

Strategic degrowth will require dismantling the behemoth that is industrial agriculture. Rethinking applied scientific research will assist in this. Rather than a “one-size-fits-all” approach (an approach that has fueled industrial agriculture for decades), research must evolve towards a “custom-fit” approach in order to address the environmental and social conditions of each individual area. Scientists will have to “go local,” collaborating with farmers, land-owners, and other local experts in order to do “place-based” research that will result in “location-specific expertise.”

Urban Farm in Chicago, Illinois (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

 An urban farm in Chicago, Illinois (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

The authors argue for “community-based participatory research,” which relies on scientists and other professionals collaborating to develop research projects, collect data, and arrive at solutions that will address problems particular to local areas. They offer an example of working with farmers in Indiana to research the use of wild bees for agricultural pollination. The data they collected, while helpful for farmers in other areas, was specific to their area of study and “lent credibility to [their] conclusions” when presented to local audiences.

This is a short but dense article that should be read in its entirety if you have access to it. I will end by offering the authors’ description of sustainable agriculture: “the application of ecological and cultural knowledge to local, decentralized, biodiversity-promoting, closed loop food production for a steady-state economy…the farm system is viewed as an agroecological system….wherein traditional and scientific knowledge of ecological interactions are employed to build system fertility, productivity, and resilience from within, thus promoting food sovereignty and autonomy.”

Speaking of Food: A Special Issue of American Journal of Botany

“At the center of discussions about agriculture and the future of food in a changing climate are the plants that we grow for food, fiber, and fuels and the science that is required to understand, improve, and conserve them.”

That is a line from the opening paragraph of the introduction to the October 2014 issue of American Journal of Botany, Speaking of Food: Connecting Basic and Applied Plant Science. In this Special Issue, the American Journal of Botany – inspired by Elizabeth Kellogg’s 2012 presidential address to the Botanical Society of America – endeavors to demonstrate ways in which basic plant biology research can benefit the applied science of agriculture, and how this “use-inspired” research can help address the challenges of feeding a growing population in a changing climate.

speaking of food_ajb

In its 100 year history, the American Journal of Botany, has published hundreds of papers that serve to advance agricultural and horticultural sciences. However, this connection has not always been made explicit. With this special issue, they are hoping to change that by “illustrat[ing] that ‘basic’ and ‘applied’ are not two discrete categories, nor are they even extremes of a linear continuum.” “Basic” research can be used to answer questions and solve “human-centered problems,” and “applied” research can “illuminate general biological principles.” When both approaches to scientific inquiry come together, everyone benefits.

I originally chose to study horticulture because I was interested in growing food in a sustainable and responsible manner. During my studies, I gained a greater interest in the broader field of horticulture as well as an interest in botany. After receiving a degree in horticultural and crop sciences, I decided to pursue a Master’s Degree. I wanted to study green roof technology, an applied science that incorporated my interests in both horticulture and sustainability. The school that I ended up going to did not have a horticulture program, so I enrolled in a biological sciences program. It was there, while doing applied science research on green roofs and taking mostly botany related science courses, that I deepened my love for science and began to see how basic science had applications, not just in horticulture and agriculture, but in all aspects of life.

That explains my great interest in this recent issue of American Journal of Botany, and why I was so excited when I heard about it. Using science to understand and address the challenges that we face today (challenges that, many of which, are a result of human activity) is intriguing to me. Based on my interest in horticulture, food production, and sustainability, establishing and advancing science-based sustainable agriculture is incredibly important to me. And so I have decided that, over the next several posts, I will provide reviews of each of the 17 articles in AJB’s Special Issue. Each post will offer a brief overview of one or more articles, outlining the basic premises and findings of each study. If your interest is peaked, and I hope it will be, you can go on to read more about each of the studies. The Introduction to this issue gives an excellent overview of the articles, so I won’t include that here. I’ll just dive right in. If you feel inclined, read ahead, otherwise stay tuned and I will preview you it all for you over the next several weeks.