Tweaking Photosynthesis; January 2012; Scientific American Magazine; by David Biello; 1 Page(s)
For years researchers have been trying to figure out the best ways of making plants produce biofuels. But there is a fundamental problem: photosynthesis, the process by which plants convert sunlight into stored chemical energy, is highly inefficient. Plants turn only 1 to 3 percent of sunlight into carbohydrates. That is one reason why so much land has to be devoted to growing corn for ethanol, among other bad biofuel ideas. And yet plants also have many advantages: they absorb carbon dioxide at low concentrations directly from the atmosphere, and each plant cell can repair itself when damaged.
Scientists have begun a new effort to soup up photosynthesis and help humans make greener fuel. The U.S. Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy, known as ARPA-e, has funded 10 such projects so far, most of which use genetic engineering to tweak a plant’s DNA-based instruction manual for growth, pigments, and the like. The largest grant—more than $6 million—has gone to the University of Florida to alter pine trees to make more turpentine, a potential fuel. Another project, led by Davis, Calif.–based Arcadia Biosciences, is aimed at inducing fast-growing grasses such as switchgrass to produce vegetable oil for the first time in history.