Amid mounting agreement that future clean, "carbon-neutral", energy will rely on efficient conversion of the sun's light energy into fuels and electric power, attention is focusing on one of the most ancient groups of organism, the cyanobacteria. Dramatic progress has been made over the last decade understanding the fundamental reaction of photosynthesis that evolved in cyanobacteria 3.7 billion years ago, which for the first time used water molecules as a source of electrons to transport energy derived from sunlight, while converting carbon dioxide into oxygen. The light harvesting systems gave the bacteria their blue ("cyano") colour, and paved the way for plants to evolve by "kidnapping" bacteria to provide their photosynthetic engines, and for animals by liberating oxygen for them to breathe, by splitting water molecules. For humans now there is the tantalising possibility of tweaking the photosynthetic reactions of cyanobacteria to produce fuels we want such as hydrogen, alcohols or even hydrocarbons, rather than carbohydrates.
Progress at the research level has been rapid, boosting prospects of harnessing photosynthesis not just for energy but also for manufacturing valuable compounds for the chemical and biotechnology industries. Such research is running on two tracks, one aimed at genetically engineering real plants and cyanobacteria to yield the products we want, and the other to mimic their processes in artificial photosynthetic systems built with human-made components. Both approaches hold great promise and will be pursued in parallel, as was discussed at a recent workshop focusing on the photosynthetic reaction centres of cyanobacteria, organised by the European Science Foundation (ESF).
A key point noted by Eva Mari Aro, the vice-chair of the ESF conference, was that there is now universal agreement over the ability of photosynthesis to provide large amounts of clean energy in future. While the sustainable options currently purs
|Contact: Eva-Mari Aro|
European Science Foundation