Berkeley Lab researchers create new light-harvesting photosynthesis simulation

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A team of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory researchers successfully created the first-ever computational model that simulates the light-harvesting activity of thousands of antenna proteins in plants — a breakthrough that could possibly lead to technology that would improve crop yields.

Working with former campus vice chancellor for research Graham Fleming, the team released a study Monday detailing how chlorophylls — green pigments responsible for the absorption of light to provide energy for photosynthesis in a leaf membrane — can transfer energy more quickly than previously thought possible.

Over the past 15 years, scientists have only understood how plants absorb energy from the sun in small scales, according to Fleming. More specifically, scientists have now championed the understanding of chloroplasts on a more detailed, molecular scale.

Though Fleming co-authored the paper, Doran Bennett and Kapil Amarnath, both postdoctoral fellows at Harvard University and previous UC Berkeley doctorate students, designed the initial experiment.

Both Fleming and Amarnath said understanding the functional and structural components of light harvesting is difficult mainly due to the mechanism’s “multiscale” measurements, which are evaluated on extremely fast time and length scales, measured in picoseconds and nanometers.

Amarnath said each researcher on the team brought a varied approach to the study, allowing for a group that was able to “create a model that spans all of the relevant length and time scales to understand light capture.”

The computational model is able to demonstrate that once the chlorophyll molecule has been activated by sunlight, the excitation diffuses radially outward to other neighboring chlorophylls until a reaction center is found, which then converts light into an energy the plant can utilize in order to grow.

The study describes the first few hundred picoseconds after a particle of light is absorbed by a plant, which previously was difficult to simulate because the process involves tens of thousands of chlorophyll molecules.

“We hope that it also provides a pathway to refine simulations treating the longer timescale dynamics,” Bennett said in an email.

According to Anastasios Melis, a campus professor in the department of plant and microbial biology, this study “drastically departs” from previous studies, as it “represents a more realistic visualization of the actual early events in photosynthesis.”

While Bennett and Amarnath’s research displays light absorption on a microscopic level, the implications of the study could have great implications on the fields of agriculture.

“The yields (of crops) are not increasing, and amount of land is decreasing rapidly,” Melis said in an email. “If we are going to feed the world, we need to improve how much food we generate in any acre of farmland whether it is rice in Asia or wheat and corn in the U.S.”

Daniella Wenger covers research and ideas. Contact her at [email protected].