Clever Apes #15: Trick of the light

July 27, 2011

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Lisa Utschig holds a vial of the protein active in photosynthesis.

Photosynthesis is one of the oldest biological processes on earth. Microorganisms figured it out more than two billion years ago, and completely transformed the planet. Sure, there was life before photosynthesis, but unless you like breathing rust, it probably wouldn’t have been your bag.

Photosynthesis put oxygen into the air, fueled the plants that feed us and formed the organic molecules that would become fossil fuels. Life on earth is positively drenched in sunshine, and yet the basic processes of how green things turn light into energy are still shrouded in mystery.

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In this installment of Clever Apes, we consider why photosynthesis, a concept familiar to most third-graders, remains a puzzle to science. And we’ll find out how a research team at Argonne National Laboratory has begun to crack the code.

Plus, how a Chicago scientist homes in on tiny atomic clocks to figure out how long it’s been since the sun shone on a specimen. That can tell you when, say, a layer of sediment was covered over, and consequently how old stuff buried in that layer is. The optical dating technology has already led to major discoveries, including one that helped overturn the conventional wisdom about when North America was settled.

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David Tiede heads a team trying to unlock the secrets of photosynthesis. (WBEZ/M