These cyborg bacteria take photosynthesis to the next level

If it wasn’t for photosynthesis, we’d all be dead. Most plants would cease to exist, carbon dioxide would flood the air, and oxygen wouldn’t replenish. Suffice it to say we’d be screwed. And although the vast majority of life on Earth gets its energy from photosynthesis — the process of turning light, water, and CO2 into fuel — chlorophyll, the green pigment that enables the process, is relatively inefficient.

To improve on nature, scientists have now induced bacteria to coat themselves in microscopic, ultra-efficient “solar panels” that turn them into photosynthetic organisms, enabling them to develop important compounds. The research has turned these organisms into “cyborg” bacteria that function far more efficiently than plants.

“My initial motivation was to use these bacteria as biological whole-cell catalysts to reduce CO2 into useful chemicals,” Peidong Yang, a professor in the department of chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, told Digital Trends. “Of course, these bacteria are not photosynthetic to start with. The cyborg bacteria become photosynthetic by directly interfacing with semiconductor nanostructures.”

Workings in Yang’s lab, researcher Kelsey Sakimoto, now at Harvard University, flipped through the scientific literature and found that certain bacteria have an innate defense to compounds like cadmium, mercury, and lead, which allows them to convert heavy metals into small crystal semiconductors. By propagating the bacteria in the lab and adding trace amounts of cadmium, the bacteria naturally produce the photosynthetic crystals on their surface.

“These bacteria do not have light-absorbing capability to start with,” Yang said. “However, once they interface with semiconductor nanostructures, these cyborg bacteria become photosynthetic as the semiconductor will absorb the sunlight and generate the electrons, and pass them onto the CO2 reduction pathway inside these bacteria, and as a result value-added chemical can be produced directly from CO2 using sunlight.”

The researchers think their bacteria can offer a better source of alternative energy as they don’t require some of the same electrical hook-ups that more “conventional” green energy methods require. The lab results suggest these bacteria just need tubs of liquid and sunlight, although more research needs to be conducted to refine the process.

“Once covered with these tiny solar panels, the bacteria can synthesize food, fuels, and plastics, all using solar energy,” Sakimoto said in a statement. “These bacteria outperform natural photosynthesis.”

The researchers presented their breakthrough findings this week at the American Chemical Society conference in Washington.

Product Review

AKG's signature studio sound goes straight to your head with these stunning cans

With gorgeous looks and great sound, AKG’s N700NC are a formidable entry into the wireless noise-canceling headphone race. We put them to the test to see if they can beat out the absolute best in the business.
Gaming

Have a spooky dance party at an abandoned mansion with Fortnite's new challenges

The Fortnite season 7, week 2 challenges have arrived in Battle Royale. From searching for chests to dancing off at an abandoned mansion, here's how to do them and the rewards you get for completing them.
Smart Home

Amazon has some killer deals on vacuums through the holidays

Whether you're buying for someone else or for yourself, Amazon has some great deals on vacuums running through the holidays. Score them while you can and keep your home cleaner than ever.
Gaming

How you can share your best gaming moments with friends on the PS4

Check out Digital Trends' quick guide to everything you need to know to save your outstanding PlayStation 4 gameplay moments, share them online, and transfer them to your computer.
Emerging Tech

Transplanted pig hearts show promise in baboon trials. Are humans next?

Researchers in Germany have successfully transplanted modified pig hearts into baboons. The results take us one step closer to ending organ transplant waiting lists for good. Here's why.
Emerging Tech

An A.I. cracks the internet’s squiggly letter bot test in 0.5 seconds

How do you prove that you’re a human when communicating on the internet? The answer used to be by solving a CAPTCHA puzzle. But maybe not for too much longer. Here is the reason why.
Giveaways

Print your heart’s desire: Enter our giveaway to win a free Monoprice 3D printer

We’re giving away a $400 Monoprice MP Voxel 3D Printer. It's easy to use, especially for beginners, with its simple menu system and touchscreen display. It comes fully assembled so you can spend more time printing instead of setting up.
Emerging Tech

Makerbot is back with a new 3D printer that’s faster and more precise than ever

MakerBot's new Method 3D printer aims to bridge the gap between home 3D printers and more industrial 3D printing tech. Here are a few of the tantalizing things you can expect from it.
Emerging Tech

Warm ski beanie instantly hardens into a head-protecting helmet upon impact

Wool hats are way more comfortable than hard helmets. You know what they're not? Safer. That could soon change, thanks to an innovative new ski beanie which instantly hardens upon impact.
Deals

Take to the skies with these 5 drones on sale for under $50

On the hunt for some cool tech for under $50? We've rounded up 5 drones under $50 that you can still get before Christmas. These models are great for kids, adults, and anyone just getting started with drones.
Emerging Tech

With this robotic garage, retrieving your car is like using a vending machine

Remembering where we parked our cars can be a real pain. But what if our cars came to find us, rather than the other way around? A new automated robot parking valet system aims to help.
Cars

Best Products of 2018

Our reception desk has so many brown boxes stacked up, it looks like a loading dock. We’re on a first-name basis with the UPS guy. We get new dishwashers more frequently than most people get new shoes. What we’re trying to say is: We…
Emerging Tech

A lidar-equipped truck knows exactly how much de-icer to apply on roads

Lidar is best known as the laser-based technology that helps self-driving cars sense their surroundings. But the city of Knoxville has another, more seasonal use for it: De-icing roads.
Emerging Tech

This unusual nature-inspired robot is equally at home on land or in the water

This intriguing, nature-inspired robot may look unusual, but it's impressively capable of moving on both land and water without problem. Heck, it can even travel on ice if necessary.