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


It All Stared With Photosynthesis

Scientists from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) & SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory 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. Planting the seeds for life as we know it on this planet. 

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 energy, 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 teams of scientist and researchers from 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 can 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.

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 when sunlight is absorbed. Outlining some of the chemical reactions at playing moments before, during, and after of illumination. The results of these experiments were published in British scientific journal, Nature

For this post, we were able to source some of the 3d data from these experiments. In the model below we captured and rendering of a Chlorophyll A ligand. A critical component in oxygenic photosynthesis. This molecule absorbs light within the violet, blue and red wavelengths. While just one part of a much larger and complex network of molecular compounds, this data begins to show images and models that were previously a mystery. The 3d model offers views of photosynthesis at the atomic level. Take a look!


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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.

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