NewsWorldIs it possible to grow food in the dark?...

Is it possible to grow food in the dark? – PortalFruticola

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The world of science fiction has imagined people from the future living in underground cities on Mars, on hollow asteroids, and on free-floating space stations far from the sun. But if humans are to survive in any of those harsh, alien environments, they’ll need ways to grow food with limited resources, and photosynthesis, the highly successful (but energy inefficient) process by which plants convert sunlight into sugar, it might not be enough. Now some scientists are wondering if it’s possible to produce food more efficiently by skipping photosynthesis and growing plants in the dark. The Magic of Photosynthesis Plants have been converting sunlight into food for billions of years. Even under minimal sunlight, plants can grow and generate life on our planet. Images from the program ‘Our Planet: One Strange Rock’. The idea sounds as science fiction as the cities on Mars. But a team of researchers has taken a first step towards doing so with a study published in Nature Food in June. The research shows that it is possible to grow algae, edible yeasts and mushroom-producing fungi in the dark by feeding them a carbon-based compound called acetate that did not originate in plants, but was made using solar electricity. Scientists are hopeful that this method, a type of “artificial photosynthesis,” could open up new ways to produce food using less physical space and energy than traditional agriculture, including, perhaps, crops that can grow in the dark. While other experts are skeptical that plant biology can be so radically redesigned, they are excited about the technology the researchers have invented and the team’s innovative idea of ​​how to make food production more efficient. “We have to find a way to grow plants more efficiently,” says study co-author Feng Jiao, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Delaware. “What [solución] is the best? I think the beauty of science is that we explore all possibilities.” More efficient than nature With the exception of some extreme environments, like deep-sea hot springs (which are sustained by the chemical energy of hydrogen sulfide that bubbles up in cracks in the seafloor), all life on Earth feeds on the sun. Even top predators like tigers and sharks are part of complex food webs that go back to plants and, in the oceans , to tiny green algae.These so-called primary producers have a biological superpower: the ability to create organic carbon from carbon dioxide through photosynthesis, a biochemical process powered by sunlight.PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT JINKERSONResearchers discovered that several types of mushroom-producing fungi (the white one in these images) could grow using the acetate from the solar electrolyser as a ic source of carbon and energy. Normally, these fungi rely on organic carbon produced by plants that photosynthesize. But while photosynthesis is essential to life as we know it, it’s not terribly efficient: Only 1% of the sunlight that hits plants is captured and used to produce organic carbon. This inefficiency will be a challenge if humans want to establish a self-sufficient presence in space, where it will be vital to produce food using as few resources as possible. It’s also a problem on Earth today, as the human population grows, putting pressure on farmers to squeeze more calories from the same land. Some scientists believe the solution is to genetically engineer crops to make them photosynthesize more efficiently. The researchers in the new study propose something more unusual: replace biological photosynthesis with a partially artificial process for converting sunlight into food. His process is a version of artificial photosynthesis, a term that has been around for years and encompasses various approaches to converting sunlight, water and CO2 into liquid fuels and chemicals such as formate, methanol and hydrogen. The researchers behind the new study say their work represents the first time an artificial photosynthesis system has been combined with an attempt to grow common food-producing organisms. His system is based on electrolysis, that is, the use of an electric current to drive chemical reactions within a device called an electrolyser. In their recent study, the researchers created a solar-powered, two-step electrolyser system that converts carbon dioxide and water into oxygen and acetate, a simple carbon-based compound. The authors fed this acetate to Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, a photosynthetic green algae. They also fed acetate to nutritional yeast and fungus-producing mushrooms, which do not photosynthesize themselves but normally need organic carbon from plants to grow. PHOTOGRAPH BY ELIZABETH HANN A type of algae called Chlamydomonas, which normally needs sunlight to photosynthesize, grew well in the dark using a flask containing acetate (right). The control flask (left) contained no acetate. All of these organisms were able to take up acetate and grow in the dark, regardless of sunlight or carbon from photosynthesis. Compared to photosynthesis, the process was surprisingly efficient. Using artificial photosynthesis, green algae were able to convert solar energy into biomass four times more efficiently than crops using biological photosynthesis. The yeasts grown using this process were almost 18 times more energy efficient than the cultures. “This is one of the main advantages of using artificial pathways over natural ones,” says Jiao. Crops in the dark? Scientists already knew that the algae C. reinhardtii can grow on acetate in the dark; the organism is mixotrophic, meaning that it can alternate between making its own food through photosynthesis and consuming organic carbon produced by other plants. But according to the study’s lead author, Robert Jinkerson of the University of California, Riverside, in the United States, this is the first time that C. reinhardtii has grown on acetate that does not come from recent photosynthesis or petroleum products, which are the fossil remains of ancient photosynthesis. This is significant. “This is the first time that a photosynthetic organism, such as an algae or a plant, has grown independently of photosynthesis since it evolved,” says Jinkerson. “It’s completely decoupled.” Once the algae were grown without photosynthesis, the researchers posed a more difficult question: Could they also grow crop plants? PHOTOGRAPH BY MARCUS HARLAND-DUNAWAY Lettuce plants could benefit from acetate, but only up to a point. They still need sunlight to grow. Developing crops that can grow in the dark remains a huge technical challenge that may require genetic engineering. His initial results were encouraging. In the dark, the researchers grew lettuce tissue in a liquid suspension containing acetate, confirming that it can absorb and metabolize an externally supplied carbon source. And when they grew whole lettuce plants in the light (as well as rice, canola, tomato and other crop species), feeding them supplemental acetate, they found that the plants incorporated acetate into their tissues. Acetate labeled with a heavy isotope of carbon, called carbon-13, could be traced to both amino acids and sugars, suggesting that plants can use it to support a variety of metabolic processes. However, the study did not show that whole plants can be grown on acetate without access to sunlight; in fact, the researchers’ experiments with lettuce indicated that too much acetate inhibits plant growth. Jinkerson says his lab is currently working on genetic engineering and improving plants to be more tolerant to acetate. This will be necessary for the team’s artificial photosynthesis method to contribute to plant growth and food production in any meaningful way. Emma Kovak, food and agriculture analyst at the Breakthrough Institute, says the authors’ results represent a “first step toward the potential use of acetate to help feed plants for indoor production.” That could reduce the energy needed to run indoor farms if it allows growers to lower indoor light levels. But “massive progress would be needed,” Kovak says, to allow plants to grow robustly using acetate even in low-light conditions. Evan Groover, a doctoral candidate in synthetic biology at the University of California, Berkeley, whose research focuses on genetically engineering plants to improve photosynthesis, agrees. The study “shows that plants can take up acetate, but that doesn’t show that they are able to actually thrive on it or significantly synthesize food, fuel or medicine,” Groover says. Achieving the latter, he says, would require “completely reprogramming the plants.” At the same time, Groover says he finds the authors’ article “inspiring.” “It shows us ways we might be able to capture light and carbon in alien, non-terrestrial environments, or environments where you can’t do traditional agriculture,” he says. Food for deep space The researchers’ technology could be applied for the first time in an extraterrestrial environment. The researchers submitted their artificial photosynthesis concept to NASA’s Deep Space Food Challenge, which awards cash prizes and recognition to groups with innovative ideas for feeding astronauts on long-duration space missions. Last fall, the team’s concept was named one of 18 winning US projects from Phase 1. In Phase 2, these teams must build a prototype that actually produces food. Winners will be announced next year. Winning the contest is no guarantee that a novel food production technology will fly on a future space mission. Many technical details would have to be ironed out first, says Lynn Rothschild, a research scientist at NASA Ames Research Center who was not involved in the new study. Weight is a key consideration, and artificial photosynthesis is likely to require transporting new equipment into space, such as additional solar panels and electrolysers. But Rothschild says it’s worth keeping an open mind about how any effort to reengineer a fundamental biological process like photosynthesis could be applied, in space or on Earth: “The payoff may be something we haven’t yet imagined.” / nationalgeographic.com

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