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WSU scientists measuring how plants convert light to energy

Photosynthesis is the story of life on Earth. Plants take sunlight and turn it into energy, thereby allowing for life as we know it. But scientists are still figuring out exactly how plants do this complex conversion.

On the left is a black circle filled with red circles. On the right, it zooms in on those red circles. There are squiggly green lines with bright red spots on them.
A zoomed in view of thylakoid membranes inside chloroplasts in a plant. The membranes are where light is transformed into energy in plants.

“Photosynthesis can be dangerous,” said Helmut Kirchhoff, an associate professor in WSU’s Institute of Biological Chemistry. “At the point where light is collected, the energy is there. That energy has to be deactivated right away and transferred to different parts of the plant or it can damage the plant.”

Because sunlight fluctuates—with clouds or as the sun travels and shadows are cast–plants react to different light environments to stay safe and not make more energy than they can process, Kirchhoff said.

Now Kirchhoff and his colleagues have developed a way to monitor how plants adjust these photosynthetic functions.

“We developed a way to measure the components of this energy converting machinery,” he said. “To understand the process, you have to know the exact ratio of components. And now we can measure that.”

The results are available in the February 2019 issue of The Plant Journal, with the article “The structural and functional domains of plant thylakoid membranes” featured on the cover. The journal also highlighted the research with this story.

Helmut Kirchhoff standing with trees in the background
Helmut Kirchhoff

The thylakoid membrane is the actual component in plants that converts sunlight to energy, its only job in a plant, Kirchhoff said.

The breakthrough needs to be researched further, but the WSU scientist said this could be the first step to more efficient plant breeding programs.

“This is really basic science, but the more we learn the easier it will be for other people to use this knowledge to help growers and everyone else,” Kirchhoff said. “A better understanding of photosynthetic energy conversion is really important. And we’ll keep working to learn as much as possible.”

The work was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation, NSF-MCB 1616982.

Media Contacts

Helmut Kirchhoff, Institute of Biological Chemistry, (509) 335-3304