January 24, 2005 | David F. Coppedge

Spinach Leaf: “One of Nature’s supreme examples of nanoscale engineering”

Under the peaceful summer sun, plants deal with a life-or-death situation: too much sun.  Those of us with legs can take cover, but a poor spinach plant out in the furrow must deal with the excess energy or die.  Since it usually doesn’t die, what’s its secret?  A process called photosynthetic feedback de-excitation quenching, if you care to know.  Scientists at Berkeley Labs discovered one key molecule in the process that helps ferry away the excess energy safely.
    You can read the details in the press release, but Graham Fleming, one of the researchers, was impressed.  “This defense mechanism is so sensitive to changing light conditions, it will even respond to the passing of clouds overhead,” he commented (emphasis added in all quotes)  “It is one of Nature’s supreme examples of nanoscale engineering.”  Some of the steps in the multi-step process respond in a million billionth of a second.  It took special ultrafast equipment in their work on spinach leaves to discover what the molecule, a carotenoid named zeaxanthin, was doing.  Science Now has a picture of the crystalline molecule under the microscope, calling it a “unique safety valve.”  Those who want all the technical details can find the team’s report in Science.1


1Holt et al., ”Carotenoid Cation Formation and the Regulation of Photosynthetic Light Harvesting,” Science, Vol 307, Issue 5708, 433-436 , 21 January 2005, [DOI: 10.1126/science.1105833].

Think about this when you eat spinach.  You are consuming a supreme example of nanoscale engineering.  A can of spinach may not help you punch Brutus to kingdom come, but might help you appreciate the King who came.

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