Oct. 9, 2008 Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley want to make micro-algae "less green." That is, they hope to modify the tiny organisms so as to minimize the number of chlorophyll molecules needed to harvest light without compromising the photosynthesis process in the cells.
To that end, they have identified the genetic instructions in the algae genome responsible for deploying approximately 600 chlorophyll molecules in the cell's light-gathering antennae. The Berkeley researchers figure that the algae can survive with approximately 130 molecules.
Why go to this trouble? Researcher Tasios Melis argues that a larger chlorophyll antenna helps the organism survive in the wild but is detrimental to the engineering-driven effort of using algae to convert sunlight into biofuel.
The scientists want to divert the normal function of photosynthesis from generating biomass to making biofuels, that is, into products such as lipids, hydrocarbons and hydrogen. In this regard micro-algae are ideal because of their high rate of photosynthesis; they are perhaps 10 times more efficient than land plants. Melis says that the phrase "cellular optics" describes this general effort to maximize the efficiency of the solar-to-product conversion process.
The scientists are presenting their research at the 92nd Annual Meeting of the Optical Society (OSA), being held from Oct. 19-23 in Rochester, N.Y.
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