Harvesting Infrared Light to Improve Photosynthetic Biomass Production

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OPEN 2021
Seattle, Washington
Project Term:
03/28/2022 - 03/27/2025

Critical Need:

Photosynthetic organisms—cyanobacteria, algae, and plants—use light-harvesting antenna complexes to capture sunlight and transfer the energy to reaction centers to produce solar-derived organic chemicals and fuels. Although the efficiency of photosynthetic energy transfer approaches 100%, the photosynthetic complexes of these organisms typically absorb less than half of the solar energy available, and infrared light in particular is poorly utilized. Moreover, the chlorophyll-protein complexes of photosystems I and II compete for photons in the same visible wavelength range. These identified inefficiencies and limitations open the door for synthetic biology to improve biomass production by increasing expanding coverage of the solar spectrum and increasing overall photosynthetic pathway efficiency.

Project Innovation + Advantages:

The University of Washington (UW) seeks to develop new photosynthetic systems that use sunlight from previously underutilized or inaccessible regions of the solar spectrum to produce chemicals and fuels. The UW team will use de novo-protein design (a computational approach to design proteins from scratch, rather than using a known protein structure) to modify photosynthetic light harvesting machinery for a broader spectrum, allowing more energy to be translated from light to chemical energy. If successful, this project would enable biofuel and bioproduct generation from near-infrared (NIR) light in cyanobacteria, algae, and plants, showing that it is possible to reengineer the light-harvesting reactions foundational to natural photosynthesis. It is a pathway to more extensive modifications for optimizing bioeconomy feedstock crop production.

Potential Impact:

By creating proteins capable of absorbing solar energy in NIR light and converting it to chemical energy, UW’s goal could significantly increase biomass production in photosynthetic organisms.


Efficient harvesting of NIR light up to a wavelength of 1000 nanometers would increase the number of solar photons available for feedstock biomass production by more than 90%.


Enhancing the photosynthetic efficiency for crop production would substantially improve bioeconomy resource efficiency and would confer greater greenhouse gas emissions reductions associated with the biomass derived fuels, chemicals, and products produced downstream.


The implications of being able to design and construct more efficient photosystems in plants and algae extend well beyond the bioeconomy and would have far-reaching impacts in fields such as food production, medicine, and materials science.


ARPA-E Program Director:
Dr. Kirk Liu
Project Contact:
Dr. David Baker
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