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SYNTHPHOTO Report Summary

Project ID: 338895
Funded under: FP7-IDEAS-ERC
Country: United Kingdom

Mid-Term Report Summary - SYNTHPHOTO (Powering cells with light: the synthetic biology of photosynthesis)

Powering cells with light: the synthetic biology of photosynthesis (SYNTHPHOTO)

One-sentence summary of the project SYNTHPHOTO aims to discover the mechanisms of assembly of the bacterial photosynthetic apparatus, and to harness this understanding for the design, development and implementation of new biological and bioinspired light-gathering and energy trapping systems.

The scientific problem to be addressed. Life on Earth is powered by solar energy, which is absorbed by billions of tonnes of chlorophylls made by plants, algae and bacteria. Inside each photosynthetic cell there are millions of chlorophyll molecules, which have to be attached to proteins before they can collect and use energy from the sun, but despite its crucial importance, we understand little about this attachment process. We want to find out how the chlorophylls and proteins inside cells are made, and how they are put together to capture light and convert it into ATP, which powers the thousands of chemical reactions that enable the cells to grow and divide. This knowledge is important to us all, not just because capturing and using solar energy fuels life, but it also holds the secret of designing and making devices that one day could give us clean, unlimited energy from sunlight.

The SYNTHPHOTO project comprises two interlinked sections: the first (SP1) investigates how newly-synthesised chlorophyll pigments feed into the membrane-embedded assembly machinery and form growing photosynthetic units. SP2 harnesses this knowledge for the design and construction of new biological and bioinspired light-gathering and energy-trapping systems.

SYNTHPHOTO outcomes at the mid-point of the project.
SP1 Elucidation of the mechanisms of assembly of photosynthetic complexes. We have published 5 papers1-5 on enzymes of the chlorophyll (Chl) biosynthesis pathway that control photosystem assembly, showing how they work. We have data for at least 9 more papers. The assembly processes have been investigated using biochemical methods and advanced atomic force and lifetime imaging microscopy techniques, and we show where the assembly machinery is located inside bacterial cells6-8. We also constructed the first atomic-level models of photosynthetic membranes9, and plan to do this for assembling membranes.
SP2. Designing and building new photosynthetic functions. We have succeeded in engineering biosynthetic pathways for chlorophylls and carotenoid pigments in a bacterium that cannot normally make these pigments – the first step to creating bacterial cell factories that can absorb and use more light than before, and become more efficient. We have published 5 papers so far on this topic10-14. We have investigated how native bacterial and plant photosystems work15-18, as a prerequisite for making biohybrid photosynthesisers; there are also 2 papers in preparation. We have invented nanofabrication techniques to start building ‘photosynthesis on a chip’ using native and artificially designed photosynthetic proteins19-22; 3 more papers are in preparation.
In summary, we have advanced progress across all fronts of the SYNTHPHOTO project, and have published 22 papers spanning biology, chemistry, advanced microscopy, and nanotechnology, and expect to at least double this output by the end of the SYNTHPHOTO programme.
1. Kopečná et al (2015) J Biol Chem 290 28477-88. 2. Adams et al (2016) JACS 138 6591-97. 3. Chen et al (2016) J Bact DOI 10.1128/JB.00121-16. 4. Chen et al (2016) J Bact 198 1393-1400. 5. Canniffe et al (2014) Biochem J 462 433-40. 6. Hollingshead et al (2016) Front Plant Sci 7 1-15. 7. Mothersole et al (2016) Mol Micro 99 307-27. 8. Olsen et al (2014) JBC 289, 29927-36. 9. Stone et al (2016) Parallel Computing 55, 17-27. 10. Canniffe & Hunter (2014) BBA 1837, 1611-16. 11. Chi et al BBA 1847, 189-201. 12. Niedzwiedzki et al (2015) BBA 1847, 640-55. 13. Hitchcock et al (2016) ACS Synth Biol DOI: 10.1021/acssynbio.6b00069. 14. Dilbeck et al (2016) J Phys Chem B 120, 5429-43. 15. Benson et al Nature Plants 1, article number 15176. 16. Chenchiliyan et al BBA 1857, 634-42. 17. Dahlberg et al (2016) J. Phys Chem A 120, 4124-30. 18. Sener et al (2016) eLife (in press). 19. Patole et al (2015) Interface Focus 5, 2015005. 20. Moxey et al (2015) ACS Nano 9 6262-70. 21. Mostegel et al (2015) J Mat Chem B 4431-4438. 22. Xia et al (2016) Langmuir 32, 1818-1827.

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United Kingdom
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