Green: The color of life

Green: The color of life

April 22, 2015

April 22, 2015

On this Earth day, we thought it would be appropriate to excerpt a new article by the New York Times' Natalie Angier, which pays tribute to the dazzling chemistry of plants, and the importance of being green to life. 
 
She writes:
 
"Scientists, too, appreciate green’s many charms and for manifold reasons, starting with one best grasped through a walk in a newly spring-sanctioned park. Chlorophyll, the pigment that makes plants green, lies at the heart of photosynthesis, the fundamental electrochemical enterprise that continues to dazzle the scientists who study it, and who say it should dazzle us, too.
 
After all, not only does photosynthesis spin sunlight and water into the sugars we eat, it spawns as a happy waste product the oxygen we breathe. “All food comes from photosynthesis,” said Petra Fromme, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Arizona State University. “There would be no higher life on Earth without it.”
 
Green, she added, “is the color of life.”
 
Fromme has been critical contributor to an ASU group that, for the past generation, has been one of the world’s leading photosynthesis groups in the world. And if scientists can successfully mimic photosynthesis ---the way plants use sunlight energy to break apart water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen –--they could help to usher in the hydrogen economy. But to date, no one has been able to unlock plants’ secrets to produce a clean, cheap, and scalable renewable energy alternative.

 
“Evolution has selected all the properties of the system over billions of years to work pretty well,” said Robert Blankenship, a former ASU professor of biochemistry who now studies photosynthesis at Washington University in St. Louis. “Once we try to fiddle with it, problems are bound to pop up.”
 
“A crucial problem facing research groups around the world is discovering an efficient, inexpensive catalyst for oxidizing water to oxygen gas, hydrogen ions and electrons,” said ASU Regents’ Professor Devens Gust, who directs the Center for Bio-Inspired Fuel Production (BISfuel). “The research by Fromme and coworkers gives us, for the very first time, a look at how the catalyst changes its structure while it is working,” Gust added. “Once the mechanism of photosynthetic water oxidation is understood, chemists can begin to design artificial photosynthetic catalysts that will allow them to produce useful fuels using sunlight.”
 
Fromme was part of the BISfuel center led by Gust that had received $15 million from the Department of Energy for their bio-inspired solar energy conversion project.

 
So on this Earth day, take a walk in the woods and hug a tree to appreciate the essential oxygen they provide in the air we breathe. And maybe, if scientists can coax plants into revealing their secrets, we can make a more sustainable future. 
 
Happy Earth day!

 

Written by: Joe Caspermeyer