Episode Summary

Incorporating light-absorbing molecules into bacterial membranes can allow bacteria to use solar energy to transform nitrogen gas into fertilizer!

Microbe of the episode:

Wheat dwarf virus

Jesse's takeaways

Turning nitrogen gas into biologically useful compounds, such as protein or ammonia for fertilizer, is an essential part of the global nitrogen cycle and therefore, for agriculture. Today much fertilizer is produced from nitrogen gas by a chemical process that requires large amounts of energy, contributing to global warming. But certain bacteria can perform the same process using special enzymes much more efficiently.

In this study, a light-absorbing molecule was inserted into the cell membrane of some of these bacteria, allowing them to use light energy directly to power the nitrogen converting enzymes. These "biohybrids" were able to produce convert significantly more nitrogen gas and produce additional bacterial biomass from it, showing promise for using such an approach for more sustainable microbial fertilizer production.

Journal Paper

Chen Z, Quek G, Zhu J, Chan SJW, Cox‐Vázquez SJ, Lopez‐Garcia F, Bazan GC. 2023. A Broad Light‐Harvesting Conjugated Oligoelectrolyte Enables Photocatalytic Nitrogen Fixation in a Bacterial Biohybrid. Angew Chem Int Ed 62:e202307101.

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Azotobacter vinelandii