Photosynthesis ‘Hack’ Could Lead to New Ways of Generating Renewable Energy

The outcomes of this study have been published in the scientific journal Nature.


A group of researchers at the University of Cambridge successfully manipulated the initial steps of photosynthesis and uncovered a novel approach to harnessing its energy.

As identified by the researchers, the reconfiguration of photosynthesis could enhance its capacity to manage surplus energy and establish novel and more effective techniques for utilizing its potential.

“We didn’t know as much about photosynthesis as we thought we did, and the new electron transfer pathway we found here is completely surprising,” said Jenny Zhang from Cambridge’s Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry.

Zhang and her team initially aimed to comprehend how a circular molecule known as a quinone can “capture” electrons from photosynthesis.

Quinones are prevalent in nature and can effortlessly accept and donate electrons.

The outcomes of this study have been published in the scientific journal Nature.

While photosynthesis is an inherent biological process, scientists have been investigating its potential role in mitigating the climate crisis by imitating photosynthetic mechanisms to produce clean fuels from sunlight and water, among other possibilities.

The scientists employed an ultrafast transient absorption spectroscopy method to investigate the behavior of quinones in photosynthetic cyanobacteria.

The scientists discovered that the protein framework where the first chemical reactions of photosynthesis transpire is “porous,” enabling electrons to flee.

This porosity could help plants safeguard themselves from harm caused by intense or swiftly fluctuating illumination.

“The physics of photosynthesis is seriously impressive,” said co-first author Tomi Baikie, from Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory “Normally, we work on highly ordered materials, but observing charge transport through cells opens up remarkable opportunities for new discoveries on how nature operates.”

“Since the electrons from photosynthesis are dispersed through the whole system, that means we can access them,” said co-first author Laura Wey, based at the University of Turku, Finland.

The scientists contend that the capability to extract charges at an earlier stage in the photosynthesis process could heighten the efficiency of photosynthetic pathways when manipulating them to generate clean energy from sunlight.

Additionally, the capacity to regulate photosynthesis could lead to the creation of crops that are more tolerant of intense light.

Zhang noted that many scientists have attempted to extract electrons from an earlier point in photosynthesis but considered it unattainable due to the energy being deeply embedded in the protein scaffold.

She further added that the fact that they were able to capture electrons in an earlier phase was remarkable. At first, the team was skeptical and thought they had made an error, but they were eventually able to convince themselves that they had succeeded.

The utilization of ultrafast spectroscopy was critical to this discovery since it allowed the team to track the energy flow in live photosynthetic cells on a femtosecond scale – a millionth of a billionth of a second.

In January 2023, researchers at the École Polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) invented a solar-powered device that is capable of harvesting water from the air for conversion into hydrogen fuel.

Last September, researchers at the University of Melbourne developed a way to generate hydrogen directly from the air, eliminating the dependency on freshwater resources.