People and Plants / Photosynthesis To Go

Survival needs to be decentralized – this “hoarding” of food and water by “well off” countries is ridiculous. Wealthy nations distribute resources as they please. This is a manipulative system that has proven inadequate, unfair and paternalistic, and has proven over and over again to be subject to corruption that fuels more wars,  suffering and death. People need to be empowered to provide for themselves, at least in disaster conditions, which unfortunately, are more and more chronic, and even permanent for too many humans around the world. 

Main problem with the approach outlined in this article: the assumption is that we literally need to incorporate “organic” photosynthesis into the human body. (Yes, let’s stick to complex, expensive intervention!) Why not another approach, such as creating artificial chloroplasts that are incorporated into “wearable” additions to the body? Photosynthetic vests, arm pads, headgear and portable units that can deliver sugars directly into the blood stream, digestive system, or can be collected and consumed as food?

I’m not a bio-engineer, but Gee Whiz! Our era is the threshold of nanotechnology, robotics, artificial intelligence, genetic manipulation and silly extravagant gadgets. Why can’t we use a bit of that “genius” to insure immediate survival of REAL PEOPLE? Instead (and it is a choice) we use the secrets of the universe to injure, maim, and KILL people and to destroy nations and create millions of refugees.   

Maybe “survival” technology is not practical yet except in emergencies – but there are, and will be, many such incidents: from lost hikers to wars, earthquakes, floods, volcanic activity, landslides, wildfires, tornados, hurricanes and on and on. Victims wait for “relief agencies” – food stored in warehouses, far from disasters, and which must be acquired, packaged, retrieved, flown, shipped and trucked in and then dispersed person to person – how inefficient can it get? And then these supplies must be replenished, packaged, stored, etc, again and again. And the human effort behind all this wasted time and energy.

OUR SYSTEMS must be rethought entirely.


BBC Future By Ed Yong, September 2012

(Nipped a bit for length)

Humans have to grow, hunt, and gather food, but many living things aren’t so constrained. Plants, algae and many species of bacteria can make their own sustenance through the process of photosynthesis. They harness sunlight to drive the chemical reactions in their bodies that produce sugars.

Animals cannot photosynthesise, but all rules have exceptions. The latest potential deviant is the pea aphid. Last month, Alain Robichon at the Sophia Agrobiotech Institute in France reported that the aphids use pigments called carotenoids to harvest the sun’s energy and make ATP, a molecule that acts as a store of chemical energy. The aphids are among the very few animals that can make these pigments for themselves, using genes that they stole from fungi.


There are, however, animals that photosynthesise in the fullest sense of the word. All of them do so by forming partnerships. Corals are the classic example. They depend upon microscopic algae called dinoflagellates that live in special compartments within their cells. These residents, or endosymbionts, can photosynthesise and they provide the corals with nutrients.

Some sea anemones, clams, sponges, and worms also have photosynthetic endosymbionts, and they’re joined by at least one back-boned example: the spotted salamander. Its eggs are loaded with algae, which invade the cells of the embryos within, turning them into solar-powered animals. The algae die as the salamanders turn into adults, but not before providing them with a useful source of energy in the earliest parts of their lives.

Sun buddies

Despite these varied examples, photosynthetic symbionts are again the exception rather than the rule. In a classic paper, botanist David Smith and entomologist Elizabeth Bernays explain why: The host needs to “pay” its symbionts in nutrients. They need ways of persuading the symbionts to release their manufactured nutrients, rather than hoarding it for themselves. They need to control the symbionts’ growth, so their populations don’t run amok. They need to transfer their partners to the next generation (corals do it by releasing the symbionts into the surrounding water). So…eliminate these obstacles!

There is another option to adding entire symbionts: steal their factories instead. Within the cells of plants and algae, photosynthesis takes place within tiny structures called chloroplasts. Chloroplasts are the remnants of a free-living photosynthetic bacterium that was swallowed by a larger microbe billions of years ago. Unlike many such events, this fateful encounter didn’t end with the engulfed bacterium being digested. Instead, the two cells formed a permanent partnership that fuels the cells of plants and algae to this day. So rather than teaming up with a symbiont, why not cut out the middle-man and take its chloroplasts for yourself?

At least one group of animals has done this – the Elysia sea slugs. These beautiful green creatures graze on algae, and co-opt their chloroplasts for themselves. The pilfered chloroplasts line the slug’s digestive tract, provide it with energy, and allow it to “live as a plant”, as Elysia expert Mary Rumpho describes it. This association is vital to the slug, which cannot reach adulthood without it.



Semi-artificial chloroplasts to manufacture biotechnologically relevant products

March 5, 2015. Source: Ruhr-Universitaet-Bochum
An international research team wants to create semi-artificial chloroplasts for the manufacture of biotechnologically relevant products. For this purpose, they aim to modify the photosynthetic process of natural chloroplasts

For this purpose, they aim to modify the photosynthetic process of natural chloroplasts. The EU is funding the undertaking with 1.2 million euros for the time period of three years, as part of “ERASynBio,” an initiative striving to promote synthetic biology in Europe.


Taking a leaf

It’s still unclear how the slugs maintain and use their chloroplasts. You cannot plug them into a fresh host cell and expect them to work normally, because many of the proteins that they use are encoded within the genome of their host cell. These proteins, which number in their hundreds, are made in the cell’s nucleus, and transported into the chloroplast. Elysia’s genome contains at least one algal gene, and while more could lie in wait, it’s unlikely to contain the hundreds necessary to sustain a functional chloroplast.

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For now, Chris Howe from the University of Cambridge says, “If you wanted to set up a relationship between a chloroplast and a new animal host… you’d have to put those genes in the host’s genome.” And with hundreds of such genes, turning a human cell into a compatible home for chloroplasts would involve genetic engineering on a vast scale.

Even if the symbionts took, even if the controlling genes were successfully added, would this make a difference to us? Probably not. Photosynthesis is a useless ability without some way of exposing yourself to as much of the Sun’s energy as possible. That requires a large surface area, relative to their volume. Plants achieve that with large, horizontal, light-capturing surfaces – leaves. Elysia, the sea slug, being flat and green, looks like a living leaf. It’s also translucent, so light can pass through its tissues to the chloroplasts within. Engineers can’t design devices that imitate the function of leaves? We have rovers on Mars for Chris’ sake!)

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Humans, on the other hand, are pretty much opaque columns. Even if our skin was riddled with working chloroplasts, they would only manufacture a fraction of the nutrients we need to survive. “Animals need a lot of energy, and moving at all doesn’t really jive well with photosynthesis,” says Agapakis. “If you imagine a person who had to get all of their energy from the sun, they’d have to be very still. Then, they’d need a high surface area, with leafy protrusions. At that point, the person’s a tree. Is this true, or the end point of limited imagination?


And why would be bother? Agapakis points out that by domesticating wild plants, and growing them for food, we have effectively outsourced the process of photosynthesis on a massive scale. Agriculture is a global symbiosis – our version of what the pea aphid does, without the faff of maintaining symbionts in our own bodies. We just plant them in fields.

Talk about ignoring reality: Modern industrial agricultural requires a huge cost in land, degradation of the land, enormous quantities of fossil fuel-based fertilizers, poor nutrition in the “food” that is produced (corn syrup – ubiquitous in ALL processed foods), dramatic diversion of available water supplies that are then contaminated and unavailable for drinking water, other toxic chemicals released into the environment And the cost of transportation, storage, packaging, refrigeration, and the resources needed to manufacture all the machinery, buildings, vehicles, and packaging. Tragically, 40% of the “food” purchased by Americans is never eaten, but is thrown away and adds to the monstrous problem of landfills and pollution of human environments, and critically, the destruction of oceans, rivers and lakes we rely on for survival.


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