Photosynthesize This

via JPL
So there is this joke we have, about how being the one government agency that routinely does its job … never mind. At any rate, NASA would have you know:

Data from satellite sensors show that during the Northern Hemisphere’s growing season, the Midwest region of the United States boasts more photosynthetic activity than any other spot on Earth, according to NASA and university scientists.

Healthy plants convert light to energy via photosynthesis, but chlorophyll also emits a fraction of absorbed light as a fluorescent glow that is invisible to the naked eye. The magnitude of the glow is an excellent indicator of the amount of photosynthesis, or gross productivity, of plants in a given region.

Research in 2013, led by Joanna Joiner of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., demonstrated that fluorescence from plants could be teased out from existing data from satellites that were designed and built for other purposes. The new research, led by Luis Guanter of the Freie Universität Berlin, used the data for the first time to estimate photosynthesis from agriculture. Results were published March 25 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

According to co-author Christian Frankenberg of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., “The paper shows that fluorescence is a much better proxy for agricultural productivity than anything we’ve had before. This can go a long way regarding monitoring—and maybe even predicting—regional crop yields.”

Guanter, Joiner and Frankenberg launched their collaboration at a 2012 workshop, hosted by the Keck Institute for Space Studies at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, to explore measurements of photosynthesis from space. The team noticed that on an annual basis, the tropics are the most active in photosynthesis. But during the Northern Hemisphere’s growing season, the U.S. Corn Belt “really stands out,” Frankenberg said. “Areas all over the world are not as productive as this area.”

You are allowed to be impressed. It really is cool, after all.

Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Satellite Shows High Productivity from U.S. Corn Belt”. March 31, 2014.

(Tip o’the hat to S.L.)

You Wouldn’t Believe ….

Now this is a paragraph:

Among the more profitable endosymbioses is one that allows the host to derive energy from sunlight. The light-harvesting machines of plants and algae, for example, are the products of an ancient merger between a photosynthetic bacterium and a microbial eukaryote. Like mitochondria, present-day plastids—including both pigmented light-harvesting as well as unpigmented nonphotosynthetic chloroplasts—are fully and inescapably integrated into the host cell. Their journey from bacterium to internal solar-powered generator is responsible for much of the success and diversity of life on earth; no other cellular invention has had a greater impact on eukaryotic evolution. In fact, as scientists continue to uncover new and bizarre plastid-bearing lineages, it is becoming clear that many eukaryotic groups lacking plastids actually descend from photosynthetic ancestors. Some species are even in the process of generating novel plastid organelles.


That is to say, just stop and consider everything in that paragraph.

Elysia chlorotica, for instance:

Elysia ChloroticaElysia chlorotica is a “solar-powered” marine sea slug that sequesters and retains photosynthetically active chloroplasts from the algae it eats and, remarkably, has incorporated algal genes into its own genetic code. It is emerald green in color often with small red or white markings, has a slender shape typical of members of its genus, and parapodia (lateral “wings”) that fold over its body in life. This sea slug is unique among animals to possess photosynthesis-specific genes and is an extraordinary example of symbiosis between an alga and mollusc as well as a genetic chimera of these two organisms.

(Encyclopedia of Life)

Is there really anything we can add to that? Behold … life!

Smith, David. “Steal My Sunshine”. The Scientist. January 1, 2013.

“Eastern Emerald Elysia”. Encyclopedia of Life. (n.d.)

Pierce, S. K., et al. “Horizontal Transfer of Functional Nuclear Genes Between Multicellular Organisms”. The Biological Bulletin. 204: 237-240. June, 2003.

Image credit: Patrick Krug via