The Island of Doubt

Marine biologists have discovered that there’s a lot more life in the ocean that can turn sunlight into fuel than anyone thought. The authors of the paper in which the finding appears don’t come out and say it in their scientific publication, but the Washington Post convinced one of them to hint at the possibility of using this alternative to photosynthesis to design new and clean energy sources. It’s way to early to start counting your chickens, but it is a fascinating possibility…

In “The Sorcerer II Global Ocean Sampling Expedition: Northwest Atlantic through Eastern Tropical Pacific” a long list of authors headed by Craig Venter (the private human-genome project guy) reports on what they found by sampling ocean water during “a several-thousand km transect from the North Atlantic through the Panama Canal and ending in the South Pacific.” There is, it would seem, many more species of microbial life in the deep seas than previously estimated.

Here’s the Post’s description of the expedition:

Countering a long-held assumption that ocean waters are not rich with microbial life, the new report, released yesterday, reveals an otherworldly world of organismal ferment, including thousands of novel life forms that could help speed the development of new antibiotics and alternative energy sources and clarify the ocean’s role in climate change.

The census — which in a single stroke has doubled the number of known genes in Earth’s biological kingdom — comes from a 21st-century version of Charles Darwin’s 19th-century voyage on the HMS Beagle.

The most interesting section, from my point of view, appears in a footnote added in review. It concerns, proteorhodopsins, assemblies of molecules that can use sunlight to move protons around — essentially what chlorophyll does in photosynthesis but using a different electrochemical pathway and different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum.

These results indicate that proteorhodopsins blur the line between heterotrophic and autotrophic microbes by allowing a wide range of organisms to harness light energy for respiration and growth. This reinforces the notion that the differential distribution of proteorhodopsin variants identified here reflects functional adaptation to the wavelengths of available light. Furthermore, these adaptations may be driven by the makeup of the microbial community. Thus, these distributional differences could reflect competition between microbes for light resources.

It’s a long way from that to “alternative energy sources” for humankind’s activities, but the Post quotes Venter saying, “That gives scientists a slew of new methods to mimic for getting energy from the sun.”

Which would be wonderful. Replicating photosynthesis on an industrial scale has proven most challenging, and anything that hints at a new approach should be welcome. Perhaps one of the venture capitalists who are, according to today’s New York Times, pouring half a billion dollars into Silicon Valley’s new clean-energy investment boom, should think about funding some basic research.


  1. #1 Sarda Sahney
    March 15, 2007

    Most human ‘inventions’ are attempts at copying nature. Though artificial processes often prove inefficient compared to Mother Nature’s millions of years of fine tuning, this process of mimicry has provided us with many innovative solutions. Letís hope this one goes as far!

  2. #2 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    March 15, 2007

    an otherworldly world

    Do you anyone giving awards for bad writing by journalists? I’d like to nominate this phrase.

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