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environment general science genetics health and medicine space technology March 08, 2003 
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Making Sense of Science

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Plant Impostors (video)
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We know that plants can make energy from sunlight, but what else can?

As this ScienCentral News video report shows, researchers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute have discovered that some bacteria can act as microscopic solar energy cells, and could someday be used as bio-batteries. The research, funded by the National Science Foundation, was published in this week’s journal Nature.

It’s in the eyes

Ed DeLong was surprised to find that so much of the pigment rhodopsin can be found out in the open ocean rather than just in isolated salty ponds. But rhodopsin is probably more common than most of us expect: It is also a pigment in our eyes.

"The interesting thing are the similarities between the pigments in our eyes and the pigments that we find in these microbes in the ocean," says the marine microbiologist. "They’re really quite similar, but they do different jobs. The pigments in our eyes take light energy and then send a signal to our brains, so they’re kind of sensory. The pigments out there in the bugs in the ocean can take that light energy and reconvert it into other types of energy, essentially eating light."

What makes the pigments so similar is that they are both "tunable"—that is, small changes in them make them absorb different wavelengths of light. "In fact, that’s kind of the basis for how we see color in our eyes with these pigment," says DeLong. "For those bugs out in the ocean, being able to sense different types of light means they can take energy from those different types of light and that’s important because different wavelengths of light make it to different depths of the water column."

The researchers suspect that some of these pigments are specially adapted to gather light in deep water while others are suited to gathering light in shallow water.

What can we do with it?

DeLong says he hopes to be able to manipulate the pigment in a way that will cause it to "teach other organisms to make energy from light, too," which would open up a broad range of applications from biotechnology to computer science. "It’s possible that one could even make a ’bio-battery,’" he says. "Teach microbes to make energy from light, and convert that into electrical energy. So we might be able to make a microbial fuel cell that runs on light."








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