An international team of scientists has taken a significant step closer to unlocking the secrets of photosynthesis, and possibly to cleaner fuels.

Plants and algae, as well as cyanobacteria, use photosynthesis to produce oxygen and “fuels,” the latter being oxidizable substances like carbohydrates and hydrogen. There are two pigment-protein complexes that orchestrate the primary reactions of light in oxygenic photosynthesis: photosystem I (PSI) and photosystem II (PSII). Understanding how these photosystems work their magic is one of the long-sought goals of biochemistry.

Arizona State University (ASU) scientists working with collaborators at the Max Planck Institute at Mulheim a.d. Ruhr in Germany have been investigating the PSI reaction center. Kevin Redding, an associate professor in the department of chemistry and biochemistry in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, is leading the research at ASU. His lab created mutations in a single-celled green alga (Chlamydomonas reinhardtii or ‘Chlamy’ for short). Using these mutants, Redding and collaborators have shown that the primary light-triggered electron transfer event in the PSI reaction centre can be initiated independently in each of its parallel branches. At the same time, they showed that PSI has two charge separation devices that effectively work in parallel to increase the overall efficiency of electron transfer.

“Although we knew that both branches were being used in PSI, and that our mutations had an effect upon the relative use of each pathway, what we did not know was how these mutations were having their effect,” Redding explained. “Unraveling that has led to the discovery of how charge separation - the moment when electromagnetic energy is converted to chemical energy - actually occurs,” he said.

The current research is important for two separate reasons. Firstly, an understanding of how these complex processes work in Nature is crucial to future fundamental research in photosynthetic reaction centers, and this discovery may well be universal. Secondly, the use of two charge separation devices working cooperatively to maximize efficiency is a design theme that may well be applied in future efforts to create artificial photosynthetic devices.

Our society has urgent need of a renewable source of fuel that is widely distributed geographically, abundant, inexpensive, and environmentally clean.