Alternative Energy

Published on January 28th, 2010 | by Jennifer Lance

Engineered Virus Causes Tobacco Plants to Grow Solar Cells

Tobacco, once the glory crop of the South Atlantic region of the United States, has fallen in stature as health problems associated with smoking the plant have come to light.  Now tobacco may be able to redeem itself by producing solar cells, according to researchers at the University of California at Berkeley.  By infecting tobacco plants with a genetically engineered virus, scientists have been able to “produce artificial photovoltaic and photochemical cells” which are biodegradable and may end up being “more environmentally friendly than traditional methods of making solar cells”. 

Photo by ellievanhoutte
Tobacco plants can grow solar cells

Tobacco plants can grow solar cells

By altering a few genes in the tobacco mosaic virus and spraying it on tobacco plants, scientists are able force “the plant to create artificial chromophores, structures that turn light into high powered electrons”.  Scientists then have to extract the structures and spray them “over a glass or plastic substrate coated with molecules that secure the rods to the plastic.”

Discovery News reports on the environmental benefits of using plants to create solar cells:

Using live organisms to create synthetic solar cells has several advantages over traditionally made solar panels. No environmentally toxic chemicals are required to make biologically derived solar cells, unlike traditional solar cells. Growing solar cells in tobacco plants could put farmers back to work harvesting an annual crop of solar cells.

Bio-based solar cells wouldn’t last as long as the average silicon solar cell, but they could act as a cheap, transportable, and temporary biodegradable power source. A solution of them could even be sprayed over plastic or glass to harvest energy.

Should we really be messing around with viruses in order to solve our energy crisis? What if we release some super virus that would affect agriculture negatively or attack human immune systems?  It is true that plants are “already very efficient at turning the sunlight into sugar and other forms of chemical energy” that we need for sustaining life.  It is exciting to think that instead of sugar they could create “hydrocarbons that could power cars or aircraft”, but what unseen consequences may result from “tweaking” virus genes?  Of course, scientists are also creating viruses that heal, so we may have nothing to fear, and tobacco farmers could use a break.

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2 Responses to Engineered Virus Causes Tobacco Plants to Grow Solar Cells

  1. I was thinking the same thing when talking about giving it a virus. It just seems a bit scary and would have to be tested thoroughly before being used.

  2. bioengineering student says:

    I’ve studied these type of genetically engineered viruses, and they aren’t nearly as dangerous as they sound. In fact they’re not very dangerous at all, although I agree they sure sound scary. They are “built from scratch” so to speak. There are certain metabolic reactions coded by certain genes that are specific to certain species. You can target whatever genetic modification you want to make in a *very* specific way. Then you can modify the virus to attack only very specific parts of the plant cell, or specific cells, and certainly specific species. The only things that even have a chance of being cross contaminated are plants that are almost genetically identical to tobacco. Even that is a thin chance.

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