Ok, we are taking a detour today into the world of photosynthetic fantasy. I was researching a perfectly logical and scientific subject for the blog*, when my eyes wandered to a corner of the webpage directing me to other articles I might find interesting and I see this:
Sure, Discovery News, don’t mind if I do…How did I miss this last month?
It’s the Algaculture Symbiosis Suit, an apparatus crafted to allow for human-algal symbiosis. Yep, those tubes have been beautifully designed to grow algae. They feed on the carbon dioxide you exhale and the sunlight they receive as you spend time outdoors. This ecosystem is closed by the fact that the wearer can then eat the algae they help to grow. Now, I love photosynthesis and photosynthetic organisms, but my first response when I saw this was:
This project is designed by artists Michael Burton and Michiko Nitta. Their artistic collaborations focus on new ways of thinking about agriculture and how humans fit into the larger global ecosystem. They even have a related performance piece in which an opera singer dons the helmet to catch her carbon dioxide as she sings arias to fuel algal growth. In theory, the result is an opera that can then be eaten by the audience. For now, this remains art. If science and the human condition on earth lead us to this as a necessity, it seems that Burton and Nitta are poised to make millions. In the meantime, we photosynthesis researchers need to work on sending yields of primary photosynthesis through the roof if our goal is to ultimately support human symbiosis.
In terms of science, we’re definitely not here yet, but I can appreciate it as a science fiction fan. On second glance, this project reminded me of elements of Frank Herbert’s Dune series- still suits and sand trout symbiosis and whatnot. I think that the astronauts in Gravity could have used something like this. However, modern agriculture hasn’t failed us to the point that humans have to give up all of their gastronomic indulgences just yet. Algae only. Pass. I like bacon too much. Plus, this isn’t really the direction we need to be going with biodiversity. Relying on a single type of organism for all of human sustenance probably isn’t a good idea in the long term.** Not sure what this new eco-trendy diet, ahem, lifestyle would be called. Alganism?
This isn’t completely science fiction. Remember, the classical experiment that determined the relationship between plants and animals? Check out this video for the review and the proof of concept of why we need plants (or photosynthetic organisms in general).
Why we need plants by Mark Stitt from the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology
Other species have actually accomplished this symbiosis. I’ve posed before on the sea slug Elysia chorotica, but it isn’t a typical symbiotic relationship as much as just stealing photosynthesis. There are also some salamanders that have intimate relationships with algae. The unicellular alga Oophila amblystomatis thrives in the nitrogen-rich environment within the salamander eggs and provides the developing salamander with oxygen that would otherwise have a difficult time diffusing through the protective jelly of the egg. However, the extent of their symbiosis doesn’t seem to extend to the adult stage, since the salamanders happily feed on worms and insects. Plus, their nocturnal lifestyle would not be conducive to being photosynthetic. Here’s another great blog post on how giant clams even have photosynthetic endosymbionts.
These kinds of relationships have prompted researchers to push the envelope of synthetic biology to see how easy it is to coerce eukaryotic systems to coexist with photosynthetic bacteria. Crazy talk, you say? Crazier than an algae suit? Not so fast my friend. It might not be as unlikely as one might think. Experiments conducted by Christina Agapakis in the Silver lab have shown that a common lab strain of cyanobacteria Synechococcus elongatus sp. PCC 7942 can be injected into zebrafish embryos and both species manage to grow and develop normally over the course of a number of days. The experiment was terminated at a developmental stage when the zebrafish would produce pigments that would prevent the cyanobacteria from getting the light they need to survive. That’s much more than could be said for the E. coli they tried to add to the embryos.
I’m still not ready to give up on the tastes of my favorite foods- caprese salad, blackberry cobbler, bacon, chocolate anything- and switch to algae. Besides, I’ve heard rumors in the photosynthetic research community about researchers tasting their study organisms (hey, some people were die hard mouth pipettors). Apparently algae and cyanobacteria leave a lot to be desired in the taste department. However, the symbiosis idea makes me wonder what the sun must taste like. Do my favorite tomatoes and blackberries really distill its best essence, biochemically adding value? Or do they adulterate it, so that even they are only pale reflections of its taste? Maybe one day in the future I’ll be able to experimentally determine the answer.
* We’ll get to that subject tomorrow.
** Herbicides would be the new weapons of mass destruction and cyanobacteria are susceptible to their own pathogens.