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Picking apart photosynthesis: New insights could lead to better catalysts for water splitting

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Posted March 29, 2013
This illustration depicts a metal cluster prepared in the agapie group on a background of photosystem ii, the protein complex that performs photosynthesis in leaves. Credit: Emily Tsui

This illustration depicts a metal cluster prepared in the agapie group on a background of photosystem ii, the protein complex that performs photosynthesis in leaves. Credit: Emily Tsui

Chemists at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory believe they can now explain one of the remaining mysteries of photosynthesis, the chemical process by which plants convert sunlight into usable energy and generate the oxygen that we breathe. The finding suggests a new way of approaching the design of catalysts that drive the water-splitting reactions of artificial photosynthesis.

“If we want to make systems that can do artificial photosynthesis, it’s important that we understand how the system found in nature functions,” says Theodor Agapie, an assistant professor of chemistry at Caltech and principal investigator on a paper in the journal Nature Chemistry that describes the new results.

One of the key pieces of biological machinery that enables photosynthesis is a conglomeration of proteins and pigments known as photosystem II. Within that system lies a small cluster of atoms, called the oxygen-evolving complex, where water molecules are split and molecular oxygen is made. Although this oxygen-producing process has been studied extensively, the role that various parts of the cluster play has remained unclear.

Read more at: Phys.org

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