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Research & career focus: Prof Dave Britt – Bioenergetics and biochemistry studies in plants

Discussion about the research undertaken by Prof Dave Britt
So my name is David Britt. I’m a professor of chemistry at the University of California campus in Davis, California. So, I’m interested in how photosynthesis works and from a point of view of a fuels and the environment. All of our fossil fuels really started with photosynthesis, so over millions and millions of years, carbon dioxide’s taken out of the atmosphere and turned in the things like sugars with light energy; water has been converted to oxygen, so the oxygen in our atmosphere comes from photosynthesis and fossil fuels comes from the product of those reactions, you know, buried in the earth and turned into things like petroleum over long periods of time.
So there’s a lot of interest in the biochemistry community in can we harness photosynthesis to make fuels directly? So, for example, one thing we might do that we’re trying to work on is using
light and photosynthesis to split water: H2O - make O2 - and then the H’s are combined to make hydrogen gas, which can be used as a fuel for example in fuel cell automobiles that are coming online now. So that would be a very efficient thing because you take water turn it into a fuel and then perhaps use the fuel to just generate water again, so you’ve got a nice benign energy cycle that doesn’t involve carbon - CO2 at all. So that’s one of our goals. So my own background is I entered college studying physics but I was very interested in physics not for pure physics sake but learning about what you could learn about the universe - astrophysics, geophysics, biophysics.
So I went to grad school at the University of California, Berkeley. I got interested in photosynthesis because, as a physicist, light interacting with matter is physics but this is now area that took me into biochemistry because we’re looking at how enzymes function to, for example, split water and make hydrogen, like I’m saying. So, as a graduate student, I started being trained in pure physics but transitioned into the more biochemical work because I was intellectually interested in the fascinating biochemistry of photosynthesis.
So, one of the things we want to do, as a society, is reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and, as I think everyone knows now, the problem with fossil - one problem of the fossil fuels is you’re releasing CO2 when you burn them. So renewable energy is very important and it can be done in a biological fashion, for example, splitting water with photosystem 2 and making hydrogen with hydrogenase, but there are many other possibilities for how you can use enzymes to make liquid fuels, etc.
So if you make a liquid fuel using CO2 from the atmosphere even then when you burn it CO2 comes out when you burn it but you’re just replacing what you have taken out, so its carbon neutral - you’re not adding to the carbon, like when you burn a petroleum, for example. As the planet increases its energy consumption, we certainly need to look at more renewable fuels.
The other thing I would add is if you learn how these enzymes work, you can actually learn fundamental chemistry from biochemistry that you could apply, for example, to artificial systems where you take the lessons from biochemistry at all the hard-working biochemist develop in their research and apply it to, for example, things where you might use photovoltaics to harvest light but you do the catalysis with synthetic catalysts that have been designed on the principles that we’ve learned from biochemistry. So, biochemistry can inform artificial synthetic chemistry as well, allowing you to work with hard materials like photovoltaic cells, instead of just working with biological enzymes.

David Britt is a Professor at University of California in Davis, California, USA. Here he describes his background and research and explains why an improved understanding of plant biochemistry offers important opportunities for society.

Prof Britt’s research group is investigating the structure and function of biologically significant enzymes with redox-active transition metal centres, clusters or organic radicals in their active site. The oxygen-evolving complex of photosystem II – the enzyme complex responsible for water oxidation in photosynthesis – is the major biological system currently under investigation. More details about his current research studies can be found on his web site.

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Biochemistry: the Molecules of Life

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