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Spinach May One Day Produce New Drugs

May 18th, 2020

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Almost a century ago the comic strip hero Popeye popularized spinach, attributing his amazing strength to the leafy green. Within a few short years of Popeye’s first appearance in 1929, spinach sales soared.

Now, spinach has a new claim to fame. Biologists are using microscopic parts of the plant to speed up photosynthesis, the process of using light to convert carbon dioxide into energy and oxygen.

Still limited to laboratory research, the implications of the research, published this month in Science, are profound. The faster process -- up to 100 times faster -- could be harnessed to manufacture drugs, accelerate the growth of crops and even help fight climate change.

Tobias Erb, a synthetic biologist at the Max Planck Institute for Terrestrial Microbiology and a lead researcher on the project, said his team expects to be able to modify the output of their photosynthesis process to produce different types of organic compounds, including drugs.

By engineering the new photosynthesis into agricultural crops, they could go from seedling to harvest in far less time, enabling farmers to produce more food than is now possible.

One particularly intriguing possibility is to use this new, faster photosynthesis process to help fight climate change by enabling plants to absorb up to 10 times more carbon dioxide than they do naturally.

"Artificial trees, that's a cool idea," Erb told the online magazine Inverse.

Erb and the research team caution that much work remains before the process can be scaled – right now the artificial structure degrades after just a few hours.

“In the natural system there are automatic repair systems,” Chemical & Engineering News quotes Erb as saying. “In our system that is not possible yet.”

Nevertheless, bioscientists not involved with the research, see it as a major step forward.

“It’s a profound discovery,” says Paul King, a physical biochemist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado.

Declaring it “very ambitious,” Frances Arnold, professor of chemical engineering, bioengineering and biochemistry at the California Institute of Technology, predicted the work will improve current efforts to convert carbon dioxide directly into useful chemicals.

Image by Aline Ponce

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