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Dr. Ron Milo: "Our future depends on breakthroughs in the use of energy, water and land. My students and I will bring all of our motivation and talent to bear on the challenge of utilizing atmospheric carbon dioxide to make food and fuel, a key issue in the quest to live in a sustainable world."
The solution to the energy crisis could be close at hand – in the foliage right outside our window. Plants invented the "photovoltaic cell" – a device for collecting the sun's energy and converting it to an energy-rich material that fuels the plant's life cycle. What's more, plants absorb around 300 billion tons of CO2 annually – ten times the amount emitted by humans. With a deeper understanding of the mechanisms of this process – photosynthesis – we might be able to utilize the natural resources at our disposal more efficiently and employ this knowledge to produce more food and environmentally friendly fuel without using more land.
Dr. Ron Milo, who recently joined the Institute's Plant Sciences Department, intends to approach this issue using tools from systems biology. He quantifies the steps in the photosynthetic process so that he can begin finding out how to make that process more efficient. Trained in physics, mathematics and engineering, Milo combines theoretical computational methods with "wet" biology to suggest methods for rewiring photosynthetic components – enzymes that have been "engineered" by millions of years of evolution – in new, possibly more productive, combinations. Improved photosynthesis may, in the future, enable us to speed up the production of biofuel from algae and help to create agricultural crops that grow better or faster.
Dr. Ron Milo's research is supported by the Mary and Tom Beck-Canadian Center for Alternative Energy Research; the Willner Family Leadership Institute; the Jacob and Charlotte Lehrman Foundation; Miel de Botton Aynsley, UK; and Rowland Schaefer, New York, NY.