The first ever light-powered yeast has been invented

Some researchers have compared it to "turning an animal into a plant.”
Loukia Papadopoulos
A microscopic view of unaltered yeast.jpg
A microscopic view of unaltered yeast.

Artur Plawgo/iStock 

Researchers have made an exciting novel type of yeast that can use light as energy.

This is according to a report by Science published on Tuesday.

The work is “the first step in more complex modes of engineering artificial photosynthesis,” told the news outlet Magdalena Rose Osburn, a geobiologist at Northwestern University who was not involved in the research.

”It is extraordinary,” added Felipe Santiago-Tirado, a fungal cell biologist at the University of Notre Dame. “To some extent, it’s like turning an animal into a plant.”

Anthony Burnetti, a geneticist at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and Georgia Tech evolutionary biologist William Ratcliff achieved this breakthrough by focusing on a protein known as rhodopsin used by bacteria, some protists, marine algae, and even algal viruses to convert light into usable energy.

The researchers inserted a rhodopsin gene that belonged to a marine bacterium into brewer’s yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) in a petri dish. However, the team’s first effort did not work as the rhodopsin protein made by the gene went to the wrong compartment. 

So Burnetti looked instead for rhodopsin already known to exist in the right compartment and used one from corn smut, a fungal pathogen. This one did indeed ended up being localized to the yeast’s vacuole, as the researchers intended.

A proven experiment

To prove this engineered yeast was indeed using light, graduate student Autumn Peterson, a member of Burnetti’s team, grew the new strain in the same dish as the original, unaltered yeast and exposed it to green light. The cells in the light-sensing strain were found to reproduce fast enough to outgrow the nonlight sensing yeast by 0.8 percent.

But not everyone is a fan of the experiment. “I think the authors overemphasize the evolutionary significance of their work,” told Science Robert Blankenship, an emeritus biochemist at Washington University in St. Louis. “This is an artificial construct and is not the product of natural evolution.”

Burnetti has an answer to this criticism stating he would now like to target mitochondria as well. “Even though it seems to have never happened in nature, we definitely plan to eventually put rhodopsin into the mitochondrion.” 

This next step could provide a lot of energy directly from the sun, just as photosynthesis does, making yeast quite similar to plants.

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