Photosynthesis Activation Process in Plants Developed Before Oxygen Was Available

Feb 08, 2014 11:48 AM EST | Matt Mercuro

Researchers from Virginia Tech and the University of California, Berkeley, have discovered that a regulatory process capable of turning photosynthesis in plants at dawn most likely developed on Earth in ancient microbes over 2.5 billion years ago.

The development also took place before oxygen became available, according to a Virginia Tech press release.

The news could help provide more information on climate change, human health, and agriculture.

"By looking at this one mechanism that was not previously studied, we will be able to develop new basic information that potentially has broad impact on contemporary issues ranging from climate change to obesity," said Biswarup Mukhopadhyay, an associate professor of biochemistry at the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and senior author of the study, in a statement, according to the release.

The findings have been published in an online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Click here to read the press release.

"This research concerns methane-forming archaea, a group of microbes known as methanogens, which live in areas where oxygen is absent," reads the press release.

Methane is the key component of potent greenhouse gas and natural gas.

"This innovative work demonstrates the importance of a new global regulatory system in methanogens," said William Whitman, a professor of microbiology at the University of Georgia, in a statement. "Understanding this system will provide the tools to use these economically important microorganisms better."

Methanogens play an important role in carbon cycling, according to the study. Once plants die out, some of their biomass gets trapped in areas that don't have oxygen.

Methanogens help change the remaining biological material to methane, which other organisms then in turn change into carbon dioxide.

This process is useful since it helps provide methane for fuel, reduces pollution, and handles waste.

Methanogens are also a factor in human nutrition. The organisms live in the large intestine, where they then "enhance" the breakdown of food, according to the press release.

The researchers also investigated an antique form of methanogen, known as Methanocaldococcus jannaschii, which can be found in deep-sea hydrothermal vents and also in volcanoes. 

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