Making Complex Organic Molecules Better than by Photosynthesis?

The Science

Photosynthesis converts CO2, water, and light to complex organic compounds that comprise much of life and makes possible the rest. However, photosynthesis is very inefficient (about 6%). As the front end of most biomass production, photosynthesis has been intensively studied to see how and if it can be improved or accelerated. Now, an alternative based on the use electrons delivered directly to the microbe Sporomusa ovata has been developed. In research at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst, led by DOE-funded scientist Derek Lovley, biofilms of S. ovata were grown on a graphite electrode in the presence of water and CO2. These microbes consumed over 85% of the electrons and converted carbon dioxide to acetate and small amounts of 2-oxobutyrate. These results demonstrate that microbial production of organic compounds from carbon dioxide and water, using electricity from a solar cell as the energy source, is feasible. The results suggest a new, and possibly more efficient, way to convert solar energy to organic products compared to the traditional photosynthesis-based process.

Principal Investigator

Derek Lovley
University of Massachusetts–Amherst

BER Program Manager

Ramana Madupu

U.S. Department of Energy, Biological and Environmental Research (SC-33)
Biological Systems Science Division
[email protected]


Nevin, K. P., T. L. Woodard, A. E. Franks, Z. M. Summers, and D. R. Lovley. 2010. “Microbial Electrosynthesis: Feeding Microbes Electricity to Convert Carbon Dioxide and Water to Multicarbon Extracellular Organic Compounds,” mBio 1(2), e00103-10. doi:10.1128/mBio.00103-10.