Public Release: 

Bionic leaf

Researchers use bacteria to convert solar energy into liquid fuel

Harvard Medical School

Harvesting sunlight is a trick plants mastered more than a billion years ago, using solar energy to feed themselves from the air and water around them in the process we know as photosynthesis.

Scientists have also figured out how to harness solar energy, using electricity from photovoltaic cells to yield hydrogen that can be later used in fuel cells. But hydrogen has failed to catch on as a practical fuel for cars or for power generation in a world designed around liquid fuels.

Now scientists from a team spanning Harvard University's Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard Medical School and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University have created a system that uses bacteria to convert solar energy into a liquid fuel. Their work integrates an "artificial leaf," which uses a catalyst to make sunlight split water into hydrogen and oxygen, with a bacterium engineered to convert carbon dioxide plus hydrogen into the liquid fuel isopropanol.

The findings are published Feb. 9 in PNAS. The co-first authors are Joseph Torella, a recent PhD graduate from the HMS Department of Systems Biology, and Christopher Gagliardi, a postdoctoral fellow in the Harvard Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology.

Pamela Silver, the Elliott T. and Onie H. Adams Professor of Biochemistry and Systems Biology at HMS and an author of the paper, calls the system a bionic leaf, a nod to the artificial leaf invented by the paper's senior author, Daniel Nocera, the Patterson Rockwood Professor of Energy at Harvard University.

"This is a proof of concept that you can have a way of harvesting solar energy and storing it in the form of a liquid fuel," said Silver, who is Core Faculty at the Wyss Institute. "Dan's formidable discovery of the catalyst really set this off, and we had a mission of wanting to interface some kinds of organisms with the harvesting of solar energy. It was a perfect match."

Silver and Nocera began collaborating two years ago, shortly after Nocera came to Harvard from MIT. They shared an interest in "personalized energy," or the concept of making energy locally, as opposed to the current system, which in the example of oil means production is centralized and then sent to gas stations. Local energy would be attractive in the developing world.

"It's not like we're trying to make some super-convoluted system," Silver said. "Instead, we are looking for simplicity and ease of use."

In a similar vein, Nocera's artificial leaf depends on catalysts made from materials that are inexpensive and readily accessible.

"The catalysts I made are extremely well adapted and compatible with the growth conditions you need for living organisms like a bacterium," Nocera said.

In their new system, once the artificial leaf produces oxygen and hydrogen, the hydrogen is fed to a bacterium called Ralstonia eutropha. An enzyme takes the hydrogen back to protons and electrons, then combines them with carbon dioxide to replicate--making more cells.

Next, based on discoveries made earlier by Anthony Sinskey, professor of microbiology and of health sciences and technology at MIT, new pathways in the bacterium are metabolically engineered to make isopropanol.

"The advantage of interfacing the inorganic catalyst with biology is you have an unprecedented platform for chemical synthesis that you don't have with inorganic catalysts alone," said Brendan Colón, a graduate student in systems biology in the Silver lab and a co-author of the paper. "Solar-to-chemical production is the heart of this paper, and so far we've been using plants for that, but we are using the unprecedented ability of biology to make lots of compounds."

The same principles could be employed to produce drugs such as vitamins in small amounts, Silver said.

The team's immediate challenge is to increase the bionic leaf's ability to translate solar energy to biomass by optimizing the catalyst and the bacteria. Their goal is 5 percent efficiency, compared to nature's rate of 1 percent efficiency for photosynthesis to turn sunlight into biomass.

"We're almost at a 1 percent efficiency rate of converting sunlight into isopropanol," Nocera said. "There have been 2.6 billion years of evolution, and Pam and I working together a year and a half have already achieved the efficiency of photosynthesis."

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This work was supported by Air Force Office of Scientific Research Grant FA9550-09-1-0689, Office of Naval Research Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative Award N00014-11-1-0725 and a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.

Harvard Medical School has more than 7,500 full-time faculty working in 11 academic departments located at the School's Boston campus or in one of 47 hospital-based clinical departments at 16 Harvard-affiliated teaching hospitals and research institutes. Those affiliates include Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Cambridge Health Alliance, Boston Children's Hospital, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, Hebrew Senior Life, Joslin Diabetes Center, Judge Baker Children's Center, Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, Massachusetts General Hospital, McLean Hospital, Mount Auburn Hospital, Schepens Eye Research Institute, Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital and VA Boston Healthcare System.

Founded in 1890, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) is the largest division of Harvard University. The Faculty of Arts and Sciences is dedicated to being at the forefront of teaching and learning and fostering cutting edge research and discovery. FAS is redefining liberal arts education for the 21st century and is committed to an open Harvard and student aid by making a Harvard education accessible to students from all backgrounds. FAS comprises Harvard College and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, including undergraduate and graduate admissions; the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences; and the Division of Continuing Education, including the Extension and Summer Schools. FAS also encompasses academic resources such as libraries and museums, as well as campus resources and athletics.

The Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University uses Nature's design principles to develop bioinspired materials and devices that will transform medicine and create a more sustainable world. Working as an alliance among all of Harvard's Schools, and in partnership with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston Children's Hospital, Dana Farber Cancer Institute, Massachusetts General Hospital, the University of Massachusetts Medical School, Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, Boston University, Tufts University, and Charité - Universitätsmedizin Berlin, the Institute crosses disciplinary and institutional barriers to engage in high-risk research that leads to transformative technological breakthroughs. By emulating Nature's principles for self-organizing and self-regulating, Wyss researchers are developing innovative new engineering solutions for healthcare, energy, architecture, robotics, and manufacturing. These technologies are translated into commercial products and therapies through collaborations with clinical investigators, corporate alliances, and new start-ups.

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