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Will a new type of photosynthesis, just discovered, change the hunt for alien life?

Ball of blobs that are magenta, yellow and pink
Cell colony. colours represent chlorophyll-a and -f driven photosynthesis

From Haley Dunning at Imperial College of London:

The vast majority of life on Earth uses visible red light in the process of photosynthesis, but the new type uses near-infrared light instead. It was detected in a wide range of cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) when they grow in near-infrared light, found in shaded conditions like bacterial mats in Yellowstone and in beach rock in Australia.

As scientists have now discovered, it also occurs in a cupboard fitted with infrared LEDs in Imperial College London.

The standard, near-universal type of photosynthesis uses the green pigment, chlorophyll-a, both to collect light and use its energy to make useful biochemicals and oxygen. The way chlorophyll-a absorbs light means only the energy from red light can be used for photosynthesis.

Yellow mass with green shades
chlorophyll-f containing cyanobacteria (green band) growing into rock, several millimetres below surface

Since chlorophyll-a is present in all plants, algae and cyanobacteria that we know of, it was considered that the energy of red light set the ‘red limit’ for photosynthesis; that is, the minimum amount of energy needed to do the demanding chemistry that produces oxygen. The red limit is used in astrobiology to judge whether complex life could have evolved on planets in other solar systems.

However, when some cyanobacteria are grown under near-infrared light, the standard chlorophyll-a-containing systems shut down and different systems containing a different kind of chlorophyll, chlorophyll-f, takes over.

Until now, it was thought that chlorophyll-f just harvested the light. The new research shows that instead chlorophyll-f plays the key role in photosynthesis under shaded conditions, using lower-energy infrared light to do the complex chemistry. This is photosynthesis ‘beyond the red limit’. More.

And extraterrestrial life? Although the researchers don’t dwell on the question beyond the first sentence, the discovery boosts, in principle, the idea that life could exist below the surface of exoplanets and suitable moons.

What’s remarkable is all the different ways that new types of life can come into existence, yet it is no longer happening, so far as we know.

See also: Researchers clearly observe quantum effects in photosynthesis

Photosynthesis pushed back even further. Time to revisit the “Boring Billion” claim


We can dispense with the “habitable zone” if we assume extraterrestrial life is underground? Picture of the Planet MarsSimilar suggestions are made for Mars.


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