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Researchers Create Atomic Movie of Photosynthesis
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Researchers Create Atomic Movie of Photosynthesis


Scientists from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, and a number of other institutions have succeeded in capturing the most detailed picture of photosynthesis to date. For those unfamiliar, photosynthesis is the organic process by which plants use sunlight to produce energy.  

Billions of years ago a speck of life on Earth mutated and developed the ability to harness light from the sun and turn it into energy. This moment literally changed our world as we know it. Overtime more plants evolved to absorb sunlight, allowing it to split water and produce oxygen while making the carbohydrates that sustain life on Earth. This reaction over the course of billions of years made our Earth the habitable environment it is today.  

Photosynthesis, is considered one of nature’s crown jewels and has remained relatively unchanged in the more than 2 billion years since it emerged. If you’re reading this and wondering exactly how plants go from absorbing light to producing oxygen, don’t worry you are not alone. Despite its role in shaping life as we know it, many aspects of photosynthesis remain a mystery.

To help shed some light on this mystery of nature. A team of scientist and researchers from around the world used some of the most advanced X-ray lasers to capture atomic-scale images of Photosystem II, a protein complex found in plants, algae, and cyanobacteria responsible for photosynthesis.

“It’s like a molecular movie,” said Vittal Yachandra, one of the lead scientists on the study. “We’re collecting more and more of these snapshots. The idea is eventually to have a continuous story of how water is split into oxygen, and how plants do that using sunlight.”

“We hope a better understanding of photosynthesis and the guiding principles we learn from these studies can then be applied to develop artificial photosynthetic systems, which is a way to produce fuels from sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide,” said Junko Yano, also one of the lead scientists.

We were able to source one some of the 3d model data from these experiments. In the model below we captured and rendered a Chlorophyll A ligand, a critical component in oxygenic photosynthesis. This molecule absorbs light within the violet, blue and red wavelengths. While just on part of a much larger and complex network of molecular compounds. The 3d model offers views of photosynthesis at the atomic level.


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NGL Viewer (AS Rose et al. (2018) NGL viewer: web-based molecular graphics for large complexes. Bioinformaticsdoi:10.1093/bioinformatics/bty419), and RCSB PDB.

See full scale model here.

It’s hard to understand everything presented in this study without a PhD in Chemistry or Quantum Physics. But in layman’s terms the team was able to monitor the positions of water molecules and the exact chemical components that are reacting with water in this process. The results of these experiments were published in British scientific journal, Nature. Outlining some of the chemical reactions at playing moments before, during, and after of illumination.

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