The Next Generation of the Green Economy
The Paper of the Month winner for May 2021 is Ph.D. student Guy Levin, from Prof. Gadi Schuster’s lab.
We are happy to announce Guy’s paper has been accepted for publication in The Plant Journal.
The subject of Guy’s research was the production of clean energy using live algae (seaweed). This is a wonderful example of the way biology can be harnessed to create alternative sources of energy, and the use of seaweed for developing a photosynthesis-based electricity production system.
We used this opportunity to ask Guy about his research, and a bit about himself too.
Hi Guy! Can you say a few words about yourself?
I’m Guy Levin, direct Ph.D. student, almost 32, and engaged to Nofar. I have a B.Sc. in Marine Sciences from the Ruppin Academic Center. I grew up in Lehavot HaBashan kibbutz in Upper Galilee, and currently I live in Nesher.
Briefly, what does the Schuster lab do?
The research at our lab focuses on the molecular mechanisms that allow desert algae to adapt their photosynthetic system to extreme conditions, as well as on ways of using the energy created in the process of photosynthesis to produce clean electricity. In addition to that, we also study the molecular mechanisms of polyadenylation and degradation of RNA in various organisms.
Tell us about your current research. What was the purpose of your research, and what have you found?
The purpose of our research was to shed light on the molecular mechanisms that allow the Chlorella ohadii, a green microalga found in the North of the Western Negev region, to survive in the extreme conditions of its desert habitat. We focused on the alga’s ability to survive in conditions when the sunlight is so intense it causes severe damage to most photosynthetic organisms. The excess light damages the photosynthetic proteins and deactivates them. One of the things we discovered was that the alga accumulates vast amounts of pigments which help it divert the extra energy received by its photosynthetic system’s antennae. We also discovered that upon exposure to very intense light, it almost entirely gets rid of the antenna that helps it receive light, to avoid absorbing too much energy. Last, we showed that the proteins that have suffered damage due to excess of light are repaired extremely quickly, allowing the alga to maintain maximal photosynthetic activity for long periods of time, even under intense pressure from sunlight.
Could you explain the importance of this discovery? How can you use it, and what possibilities does it open up?
The discoveries we made in our research helped us learn about the light resistance mechanisms of a photosynthetic organism which is one of the most resistant to this type of pressure. Their most obvious practical use is using genetic engineering to imitate that resistance in plants of high economic value, for example, in agriculture. Making light-sensitive plants, such as soy, resistant to strong light can help increase their yield. Additionally, as part of my extended research and nearly total exposure of the alga’s resistance mechanisms, we’ll be trying to use the alga to develop a photosynthesis-based electricity production system. Because of its high resistance to consecutive intense light, we suggest it would be the perfect candidate to be used in such a system. My extended research will also cover this topic, with the help and supervision of Prof. Omer Yehezkeli from the Faculty of Biotechnology and Food Engineering. Our purpose is to create a bio-photo-electrochemical cell which would produce electricity without any investment of energy and without any pollution by using a live alga that will continue to grow and reproduce on its own. When it performs photosynthesis, it will convert the light energy to chemical energy which we can use to produce electricity.
Can you tell us some more about the process of your work? How did you come up with the idea? How long did the research take?
The work process was very smooth. The basic idea was simple – to grow the alga in conditions of highly intense light and in conditions of low light, and find the ways in which it adapts to extremely high light intensity. Through the use of various methods which we describe in our paper we’ve managed to show some of these crucial adaptations. The research went on for about a year before we started working on a paper. Then it took another six months till we finished it and it was officially accepted for publication. We only started writing the paper when we were certain we had a story here, when we felt we’d managed to find some new, significant, and reliable information. Of course, the pandemic made everything more difficult, but when I couldn’t physically be in the lab, I could at least work on the paper.
What appealed to you about the lab and this project?ֿ
Photosynthesis is a wonder. Nearly all life on Earth would be unable to exist if it weren’t for some organisms’ ability to convert light energy into chemical energy. This in itself is a good enough reason to study the subject, isn’t it? Besides that, our lab is working on producing electricity using photosynthesis. This is a fascinating field of research in its own right – coming up with new potential sources of renewable, clean, cheap energy. I loved the idea at once.
What do you do when you’re not doing science?
I love watching football. I’m a big fan of Liverpool. Taking jeep trips with my fiancée. Watching movies. I’m also a very social person, I like hanging out with my friends whenever I can.
What is the one thing no one knows about you?
I didn’t have a matriculation diploma until I was 23.
What do you want to be when you grow up?
And what about your career plans?
It’s still too early for me to plan my future. I mean, it will definitely include science and research, but at this point it’s hard for me to say in what form. My scientific areas of interest are broad, and I’m not limiting myself to anything in particular. I do know that I would like to do the kind of research that can be used to help humanity and science.
Any tips for new students?
Patience and perseverance are the key.
Faculty of Biotechnology and Food Engineering at the Technion