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Using light in the darkness
Solid-state devices can efficiently capture solar energy to produce chemicals and fuels from carbon dioxide. Yet biology has already developed a high-specificity, low-cost system to do just that through photosynthesis. Sakimoto et al. developed a biological-inorganic hybrid that combines the best of both worlds (see the Perspective by Müller). They precipitated semiconductor nanoparticles on the surface of a nonphotosynthetic bacterium to serve as a light harvester. The captured energy sustained cellular metabolism, producing acetic acid: a natural waste product of respiration.
Improving natural photosynthesis can enable the sustainable production of chemicals. However, neither purely artificial nor purely biological approaches seem poised to realize the potential of solar-to-chemical synthesis. We developed a hybrid approach, whereby we combined the highly efficient light harvesting of inorganic semiconductors with the high specificity, low cost, and self-replication and -repair of biocatalysts. We induced the self-photosensitization of a nonphotosynthetic bacterium, Moorella thermoacetica, with cadmium sulfide nanoparticles, enabling the photosynthesis of acetic acid from carbon dioxide. Biologically precipitated cadmium sulfide nanoparticles served as the light harvester to sustain cellular metabolism. This self-augmented biological system selectively produced acetic acid continuously over several days of light-dark cycles at relatively high quantum yields, demonstrating a self-replicating route toward solar-to-chemical carbon dioxide reduction.