Embark on a journey through the groundbreaking research of Tobias Erb, a visionary synthetic biologist at the Max Planck Society. Explore the evolution of carbon conversion through Photosynthesis 2.0, a paradigm-shifting concept that seeks to create a sustainable “neo-carbonocene.” Delve into Erb’s innovative approach, blending synthetic biology, chemistry, material sciences, and machine learning, to engineer novel CO2-converting enzymes and pathways. Discover how Erb’s pioneering work addresses the urgent ecological and societal challenges presented by carbon dioxide in our changing world.

Which wall does your research break?

With our research, we want to break the wall to a sustainable global carbon cycle. Our vision is to pave the way towards a “neo-carbonocene”, in which we can turn the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide into a sustainable resource. To achieve this goal, we use synthetic biology to develop a photosynthesis 2.0 – a human-enabled version of the central operating system of the global carbon cycle. The sustainable capture and conversion of carbon dioxide is one of the most urgent ecological, environmental, societal and economic challenges in a world increasingly affected by global warming. While biological photosynthesis provides a blueprint, this naturally evolved process is not sufficient to cover global and human needs. In our lab, we bring together synthetic biology, chemistry, material sciences and machine learning to re-think, re-design and re-invent photosynthesis. We develop new-to-nature mechanisms for carbon capture that nature has not explored during evolution. We implement these new solutions in photosynthetic organisms and artificial chloroplasts to create new solutions at the interface of the biological and technical world.

What inspired or motivated you to work on your current research or project?

Our research aims at creating a sustainable carbon cycle that is in balance with human activities. To that end, we need to overcome the limitations of natural carbon capture and conversion. Notably, our approach is not to improve the existing process of photosynthesis, but to extract its basic operating principles and use those to realize a “new-to-nature” photosynthesis.

Our efforts might be best compared with human efforts in aviation. While the basic principles of flight were studied in birds, the final technical realization was an airplane, which looked very different, but still used the same principles of flight.

In the case of photosynthesis, the natural process is stuck in an evolutionary dead-end. It is limited by the central machinery that captures and converts the CO2. The central machinery of photosynthesis is very slow and misfires a lot, which makes photosynthesis an imperfect, although robust solution. While the process is the main solution used by nature these days, we have come to realize that many hundreds of theoretically possible solutions for CO2 fixation have apparently not been tested by evolution. Our approach is to systematically design, realize and test those alternative solutions in the lab to test their potential in capturing CO2. We have succeeded in identifying new pathways for CO2 capture that outcompete natural photosynthesis in speed (kinetics) and energy requirements (thermodynamics). These solutions are currently tested in a cellular context and further developed to be “booted” in the context of natural and artificial chloroplasts and synthetic cells.

In what ways does society benefit from your research?

Realizing new ways for the sustainable conversion of the greenhouse gas CO2 has the potential to provide novel solution for one of the most pressing challenges of our times, climate change. Biology has already demonstrated that it can operate sustainable carbon capture on a global scale. Photosynthesis is able to convert more than 400 billion tons of CO2 per year. Yet, this naturally evolved solution is not sufficient to cover the human and global needs of the Anthropocene. Our research has the potential to break this natural limitation of photosynthesis and provide new, improved solutions for carbon capture and conversion.

Transplanting these solutions in microorganisms and plants, we could create organisms that capture more CO2 and need less energy compared to natural photosynthesis. This could create new biological carbon sinks and could contribute to secure food production in a world that will need to host 10 billion people by 2050. At the same time, our solutions can also use the greenhouse gas CO2 as a raw material for a CO2-based bioeconomy in the future. This could involve classical biotechnological production platforms, but notably also open up the way for completely novel concepts, such as artificial chloroplasts or synthetic cells for a sustainable biosynthesis.

On a bigger picture, our research provides a radically new approach towards biology, in which humans become an active part of evolution that can re-initiate and re-open new evolutionary paths. Synthetic biology has the potential to become a key technology of the 21st century. Developing, inspiring, and empowering a new generation of synthetic biologists that could use synthetic biology to solve global challenges is probably one of the most important impacts of our work on a larger scale.

Further information

Further Activities to have a look at