“With our approach we sought to identify a new way of producing food that could break through the limits normally imposed by biological photosynthesis,” said chemical and environmental engineer Robert Jinkerson from the University of California, Riverside.
“We found that a wide range of crops could take the acetate we provided and build it into the major molecular building blocks an organism needs to grow and thrive,” added Marcus Harland-Dunaway, a botany and plant scientist from UC Riverside.”With some breeding and engineering that we are currently working on we might be able to grow crops with acetate as an extra energy source to boost crop yields.”
The key is an acetate-producing electrolyzer, which the scientists invented to mimic natural photosynthesis. With the use of solar panels, the team was able to generate electricity, which they combined with water and carbon dioxide to produce acetate, which plants need to grow.
The team’s additional vital discovery was that, through the artificial photosynthesis that they were able to create, more acetate was produced, which boosted plant growth and yield.
According to the scientists, tomato, cowpea, rice, canola, and green pea crops also benefitted from the carbon in the acetate and thrived without sunlight. The process was also applicable even to a wider range of microorganisms, such as yeast, green algae, and mycelium, from which fruiting bodies of fungi sprout like mushrooms.
This process of artificial photosynthesis can complement natural photosynthesis in order to enhance global food security. It can also help to make plants resilient to the effects of climate change.
Moreover, it can help sustain astronauts in space by growing vegetable and fruit gardens at their stations.
The experiment is one of the winners of the NASA Deep Space Food Challenge.