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Scientists Are Trying to Grow Crops in the Dark


we have a Thank you so much for photosynthesis. Our whole existence, first of all. About 3 billion years ago, a group of microorganisms called cyanobacteria evolved a way to convert light and water into energy, releasing oxygen in the process. These microbes would eventually fill our atmosphere with oxygen—turning the atmosphere from a toxic miasma composed mostly of nitrogen and carbon dioxide to the life-sustaining mixture we have today. All of this — plants, humans, dogs, Netflix, ice cream — more or less starts with photosynthesis.

The same process applies to the beginning of everything we eat. Plants use sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide to grow, and humans then either eat them directly or after they become part of an animal, mushroom, or anything else we like to chew on. All energy that ends up in our bodies starts with sunlight captured by plants through photosynthesis. There’s just one small problem with this system – plants are actually pretty bad at converting sunlight into growth. Plants are estimated to be as low as 1 percent efficient at converting sunlight and carbon dioxide into new biomass.

UC Riverside professor Robert Jinkerson has studied the inefficiency of photosynthesis and saw an engineering problem. If we can squeeze more energy out of every square inch of sunlight, then we can reduce the total amount of land needed to grow food. “Our ultimate goal is to change the way we think about how we produce crops and agriculture,” Jinkerson said. “If we can use the area needed to produce the food humans need more efficiently, then we can turn farmland back into natural land.”

One way to do this could be to grow crops in the dark using electricity from solar panels, which are many times more efficient than plants at converting sunlight into energy.In a new scientific paper published in the journal natural foodJinxon and his colleagues describe using solar panels to power a process called electrocatalysis, which produces a liquid that algae, yeast and plants can use to grow in place of sunlight.

The researchers used solar panels to run a machine that converts carbon dioxide, electricity and water into acetate — a molecule that can be diluted in water and used to feed plants. They then fed this mixture to algae, yeast, mushrooms and a range of common plants, including cowpea, tomato, canola and rice. Both algae and yeast grow very efficiently on acetate mixes, which is not surprising since scientists already know that these species can eat acetate. Even more surprising, crops also consumed acetate and grew, even when they were grown in complete darkness.

But be warned before you close your tomato plant in the cupboard. Jinkerson and his colleagues only knew that the plants were eating acetate because they dissolved them after growing for a while and analyzed whether they contained any of the carbon molecules in acetate. But giving plants enough acetate to grow turned out to be toxic to them — so while plants can technically grow on acetate, they don’t quite thrive on it.

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