Artificial photosynthesis: Synthetic chloroplasts as solar-powered drug factories

photosynthesis

There’s a new way to eat carbon dioxide. Researchers have built an artificial version of a chloroplast, the photosynthetic structures inside plant cells. It uses sunlight and a laboratory-designed chemical pathway to turn CO2 into sugar.

Artificial photosynthesis could be used to drive tiny, non-living, solar-powered factories that churn out therapeutic drugs …. The work was published in Science on 7 May.

Although it’s just a proof of principle, it’s already possible to think of ways in which the artificial chloroplasts could be put to work, the authors say. Because of advances in synthetic biology, microbes can now be engineered to churn out useful molecules such as pharmaceutical drugs.

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They might be able to do so more efficiently than microbes can, says Kate Adamala, a synthetic biologist at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. “Natural cells spend a lot of energy on staying alive, while synthetic [systems] do not need to grow, reproduce or maintain any life-like functions,” she says.

But there are problems to address before these applications can become reality. For example, the spinach membranes within the artificial chloroplasts function for just a few hours before they begin to degrade, limiting the working life of the system.

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