Cyborg bacteria covered in solar panels can beat plants at photosynthesis

Photosynthesis, or the way plants turn carbon dioxide into oxygen, is crucial for life on Earth — but it’s not a very efficient process. Scientists at a UC Berkeley lab taught bacteria how to cover their own bodies with nanocrystals, which function as tiny solar panels that capture more energy than plants can. The bacteria ended up having 80 percent efficiency, compared to about 2 percent for plants. This form of artificial photosynthesis is a big step toward developing more efficient fuels that generate renewable energy using sunlight. (The results were presented at the 54th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society.)

The scientists used a naturally occurring bacteria called Moorella thermoacetica. Normally, this bacteria uses carbon dioxide to produce acetic acid, which can eventually be turned into fuels and plastics. To make them more efficient, the researchers first fed the bacteria a chemical called cadmium and a compound called cystine. The bacteria synthesized it into nanoparticles covering its bodies. The nanoparticles acted like solar panels, so the new hybrid organism produced acetic acid not only from carbon dioxide, but also water and light. This made the process a lot more efficient — even more so than natural photosynthesis — and it created zero waste.

This finding isn’t quite ready to be commercialized yet, but it has a lot of potential. Perhaps one day our cyborg bacteria overlords will lead the way out of fossil fuel dependence.


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