Chaperones fold Rubisco
Photosynthesis, a veritable stroke of genius on the part of nature, makes the existence of higher life forms possible. If it can be optimized, it may be able to make an even greater contribution to the resolution of future energy problems. Manajit Hayer-Hartl and Ulrich Hartl are currently working on this possibility at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry in Martinsried.
Text: Harald Rösch
Be honest – when you look at a rich green meadow, does a solar power plant come to mind? Of course not. However, plants do something very similar: they convert the energy from sunlight into usable energy. Through photosynthesis, they harness this energy to synthesize sugar in a process that involves numerous intermediate steps. We already tap into this energy source today, for example in the form of biofuel and in biogas plants.
So nature has been building solar power plants for millions of years. The only drawback is that these natural power stations work so inefficiently. Plants are energy wasters – at least when it comes to harnessing energy through photosynthesis. The combined area of Germany and France would not provide sufficient acreage to cover Europe’s bioethanol or biodiesel requirements in 2050. If, however, 10 percent of the energy that falls on this area in the form of sunlight could be converted into chemical energy, an area the size of the German federal state of Baden-Württemberg would probably be sufficient.
The efficiency of plant photosynthesis is only around 5 percent. In comparison, the solar power cells available today have an efficiency of around 20 percent, but they don’t produce fuels that, like bioethanol, can be easily stored and transported. However, there are organisms that achieve far greater levels of efficiency than plants. The green sulfur bacterium Chlorobaculum tepidum, for example, has extremely efficient solar power equipment for the absorption of light, and can convert 10 percent of incident light into chemical energy