a16z Journal Club: Building a Better Chloroplast

In this episode of the a16z bio Journal Club, bio deal team partner Judy Savitskaya and Lauren Richardson discuss research that aims to enhance the efficiency of photosynthesis and carbon fixation. These two processes are used by plants and other phototrophs (like algae) to convert light energy and carbon dioxide from the air into organic matter. The pathways took millions of years to evolve, but can scientists use advances in biochemistry and synthetic biology to increase their efficiency?

The two articles discussed were both published in the journal Science and are both from the lab of Tobias Erb at the Max Planck Institute for Terrestrial Microbiology. The first article, published in 2016 develops a synthetic pathway for the fixation of carbon dioxide in vitro. The second article, which was published in May, combines this synthetic carbon fixation pathway with the natural photosynthetic pathway isolated from spinach to create an artificial chloroplast.

This combination of natural and synthetic components to improve the efficiency of these pathways has a number of potential applications, including in engineering our crops to grow faster. We discuss these exciting applications, how evolution has restricted the efficiency of carbon fixation and how these engineered solutions get around that problem, and the use of microfluidics for vastly improved experimental design.

“A synthetic pathway for the fixation of carbon dioxide in vitro” in Science (November 2016), by Thomas Schwander, Lennart Schada von Borzyskowski, Simon Burgener, Niña Socorro Cortina, Tobias J. Erb

“Light-powered CO2 fixation in a chloroplast mimic with natural and synthetic parts” in Science (May 2020), by Tarryn E. Miller, Thomas Beneyton, Thomas Schwander, Christoph Diehl, Mathias Girault, Richard McLean, Tanguy Chotel, Peter Claus, Niña Socorro Cortina, Jean-Christophe Baret, Tobias J. Erb

a16z bio Journal Club (part of the a16z Podcast), curates and covers recent advances from the scientific literature — what papers we’re reading, and why they matter from our perspective at the intersection of biology & technology. You can find all these episodes at a16z.com/journalclub.