Is your hamburger or protein shake going to be made out of CO2 in the future? Yes, if it’s up to microbiologist Nico Claassens. His group is working on developing bacteria that convert CO2 into nutrients such as sugar. ‘The operation is comparable with replacing the heart of a mosquito with that of an elephant.’
The idea of storing carbon dioxide in biomass is not new, so the Wageningen University & Research in a press release. About three billion years ago, cyanobacteria (or blue-green algae) were way ahead of us in using the gas as a source of carbon, with the aid of sunlight – and photosynthesis was born. A relative of the cyanobacteria later got into plant cells, where, as chlorophyll, it does the same job. In the volcanic ocean bed, prehistoric bacteria do this as well, not with sunlight but with energy from hydrogen, for example.
What is new here is that assistant professor Nico Claassens (Microbiology) and his group want to attempt to outdo nature. They are building a faster and more efficient substitute for the Calvin cycle, the essential reaction chain for binding CO2. The Calvin cycle converts CO2 into sugars and amino acids, for example. It is the commonest carbon-binding route in bacteria and plants, but it is slow and inefficient. The main enzyme in the cycle, Rubisco, was ‘invented’ when there was hardly any oxygen on Earth. Now the air consists of about 21 per cent oxygen and that causes a problem in the enzyme. It binds not just CO2 but oxygen as well, losing some of the bound CO2 in the process.
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