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New type of photosynthesis discovered that uses infrared light

Scientists at Imperial College London have uncovered a previously unknown type of photosynthesis that uses light from the infrared spectrum instead of red light. This unexpected discovery was found among blue-green algae in low-light areas of Yellowstone National Park and coastal Australia.

Professor Bill Rutherford from the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial is the lead author of the study.

“The new form of photosynthesis made us rethink what we thought was possible,” said Professor Rutherford. “It also changes how we understand the key events at the heart of standard photosynthesis. This is textbook changing stuff.”

For many years, it has been assumed that red light was needed for photosynthesis, a process where light is converted into energy using the green pigment chlorophyll-a to absorb the light.

The investigation, which was focused on cyanobacteria under infrared light, demonstrated that another pigment called chlorophyll-f can also perform photosynthesis under the right conditions.

Study co-author Dr. Andrea Fantuzzi is in the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial.

“Finding a type of photosynthesis that works beyond the red limit changes our understanding of the energy requirements of photosynthesis,” said Dr. Fantuzzi. “This provides insights into light energy use and into mechanisms that protect the systems against damage by light.”

In addition to transforming our scientific understanding of life on Earth, the new insight will also transform the way that experts search for life beyond this planet. According to the experts, the research could help to develop ways of growing crops in low-light conditions as well.

Peter Burlinson is an expert from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), which supported the study.

“This is an important discovery in photosynthesis, a process that plays a crucial role in the biology of the crops that feed the world,” said Burlinson.

“Discoveries like this push the boundaries of our understanding of life and Professor Bill Rutherford and the team at Imperial should be congratulated for revealing a new perspective on such a fundamental process.”

The research is published in the journal Science.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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