Computerized future

 By Benjamin Plackett

Grow a plant with a mere click of the mouse?

Not quite, but a research project at the University of Illinois is mathematically modeling the entire process by which plants turn the sun’s rays into usable energy. The project hopes to identify ways to increase the rate of photosynthesis and in doing so, make biofuel production more efficient.
The scientists are doing this at all scales from the field level to the molecular level.
“There is a lot of discussion on what we can do to decarbonize our fuels, but right now the decarbonization of electricity isn’t aggressive enough,” laments Steve Long, professor of crop sciences and plant biology at the University of Illinois Urbana and director of the project.
They are virtually growing crops inside their computers in a matter of seconds to test and quantify the possible ways for humankind to squeeze more bio-energy from certain plants. During this process, they are feeding in data from genetic engineering to enable them to see what proposed DNA modifications might actually achieve in the field.

The scientists say this will help them to optimize the positioning of a plant’s leaf foliage, improve carbon metabolism and empower the plants produce chemicals more efficiently.
Long cautions, however, that beefing up biofuel production isn’t an alternative to electric cars, but should instead happen in concert with electric and hybrid vehicle rollout. There is no silver bullet, he says.
“I’m saying we should do both. Electric vehicles are more efficient even if their electricity is from decarbonized sources. There isn’t one solution to the problem,” he says.
Photosynthesis is probably one of the most studied and best understood plant processes. Scientists have already identified the genes that regulate the 100 stages of photosynthesis, but instead of actually tweaking with those genes in the lab and then growing the modified plant to see if the changes have worked, Long and his team just need to ask the computer to grow it. In short; it has sped up the business of research.
This project offers a way to computerize experiments that would have otherwise taken years in the real world, making bio-fuel a more realistic alternative energy source.

READ MORE: Sequencing Algae DNA for Biofuels by Benjamin Plackett

about the author
Benjamin Plackett
I’m a journalist based in London. I report on all things science, tech, and health for a number of different publications. My work has been published by The Daily Dot, Inside Science and CNN among others. I earned my M.A. in Journalism at New York University and my B.Sci in Biology from Imperial College, London.