Friday, August 30, 2013

Getting Your Food from a Firehose

"If we want to stop global warming, we need to hold more carbon in soil organisms and the residues of those organisms for the longest possible time."

We have been delving into the dirty secret behind our food, which is that it comes from bacteria, primarily, with considerable assistance from a social network of fungi, nematodes, micro-arthropods and soil-dwelling microbes of various descriptions, many of which make the Star Wars café scene characters seem tame. Most people, asked what plants eat, answer something like, “sunlight, water and dirt.” Water and sunlight play an important role, for sure. Using the energy of photons from the sun, sugars and carbohydrates are constructed from carbon dioxide and water, discarding oxygen. But the real denizens of the deep are bacteria.

Thanks to O2-generating bacteria at work for a billion years, Earth is now habitable for oxygen-loving creatures such as ourselves.

In general terms, the strategy for solar energy utilization in all organisms that contain chlorophyll or bacteriochlorophyll is the same. Here is how some of our ancestors, the purple bacteria, do it:

  1. Light energy is captured by pigment molecules in the light harvesting or "antenna" region of the photosystem, and is stored temporarily as an excited electronic state of the pigment.
  2. Excited state energy is channeled to the reaction center region of the photosystem, a pigment-protein complex embedded in a charge-impermeable lipid bilayer membrane.
  3. Arrival of the excited state energy at a particular bacteriochorophyll (BChl), or pair of BChls in the reaction center triggers a photochemical reaction that separates a positive and negative charge across the width of the membrane.
  4. Charge separation initiates a series of electron transfer reactions that are coupled to the translocation of protons across the membrane, generating an electrochemical proton gradient [protonmotive force (pmf)] that can be used to power reactions such as the synthesis of ATP.

If your eyes glazed over at that explanation, don’t worry. Much of photosynthesis still remains a mystery. Over the past several decades scientists examining oxygenic bacteria known as prochlorophytes (or oxychlorobacteria) have discovered a light harvesting protein complex. The intriguing thought arises, given how much of the bodies of plants are actually made up of bacteria (as also are our own), of whether photosynthesis is actually dependent on bacteria at one or more of the steps in the process.

Recently Drs. Jianshu Cao, Robert Sibley and three MIT graduate students studied purple bacteria, one of the planet’s oldest species, and discovered a special symmetry. Ring-shaped molecules are arranged in a peculiarly faceted pattern on the spherical photosynthetic membrane of the bacterium. Dr. Cao says, “We believe that nature found the most robust structures in terms of energy transfer." Only a lattice made up of nine-fold symmetric complexes can tolerate an error in either direction.

Spinning Photon Nets

Another discovery (by Sabbert et al. in 1996) is that in order to optimize sunlight, the nine-fold symmetric lattice has to spin. Moreover, it has to spin quite fast — nearly 100 rpm. We know of some bacterial flagella that spin at high rpm.  Might spinning flagella propel the photon-capturing process? Too soon to say, but its an intriguing idea, and yet more evidence for quantum entanglement of all life, big and small.

The Encyclopedia of Applied Physics (1995) says:
The amount of CO2 removed from the atmosphere each year by oxygenic photosynthetic organisms is massive. It is estimated that photosynthetic organisms remove 100 x 1015 grams of carbon (C)/year. This is equivalent to 4 x 1018 kJ of free energy stored in reduced carbon, which is roughly 0.1% of the incident visible radiant energy incident on the earth/year. Each year the photosynthetically reduced carbon is oxidized, either by living organisms for their survival, or by combustion. The result is that more CO2 is released into the atmosphere from the biota than is taken up by photosynthesis. The amount of carbon released by the biota is estimated to be 1-2 x 1015 grams of carbon/year. Added to this is carbon released by the burning of fossil fuels, which amounts to 5 x 1015 grams of carbon/year. The oceans mitigate this increase by acting as a sink for atmospheric CO2. It is estimated that the oceans remove about 2 x 1015 grams of carbon/year from the atmosphere. This carbon is eventually stored on the ocean floor. Although these estimates of sources and sinks are uncertain, the net global CO2 concentration is increasing. Direct measurements show that each year the atmospheric carbon content is currently increasing by about 3 x 1015 grams. … Based on predicted fossil fuel use and land management, it is estimated that the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere will reach 700 ppm within [this] century. (references omitted)
What needs to happen, quickly, to reverse our rush to a climate from which there can be no near-term recovery, and to avoid Earth becoming as uninhabitable as Venus, is to accelerate photosynthesis while decelerating carbon emissions. Our allies in this are bacteria and fungi, as they were billions of years ago. They will do the heavy lifting if we just give them a little support. They need good growth conditions (like heat and moisture, which we should have in increasing abundance this century), nutrients, and space to breathe. Lose the antibacterial soaps and sprays, please.

Planting gardens and tree crops is a start. Ecological restoration, where damage can be slowly unwound by greenery, is another step. Living roofs, tree-lined hardscapes, earth-sheltered homes: all of these are both adaptive and mitigating strategies for a recovering climate stasis. But there is something even more powerful.

Tea from a Firehose

This week we asked Joey “Mr Tea” Thomas to come dose the Ecovillage Training Center with his eclectic brew of liquid compost. Mr Tea’s recipe is as good as any batch of Biodynamic Preps or EM (Effective Micro-organisms) you might already be using. It is inestimably superior to MiracleGrow® or other commercial, bagged soil amendments.

In a large stainless steel tank retrofitted with aerating pipes, Mr Tea combines de-chlorinated warm water and…

  • Kelp
  • Humates
  • Folic Acid
  • Fish Oil Emulsion
  • Bat Guano
  • Feather Meal
  • Virgin Forest Soil
  • Deep Pasture Topsoil
  • Composted Animal Manure
  • Composted Kitchen Scraps
  • Composted Poultry Litter
  • Worm Castings & Liquor, and
  • Biochar

The kelp, fish oil, and most of the composts provide rich food for the microbes while they brew. The humates are million-year old deposits with diverse paleobacteria. The bat guano is drawn from distant caves rich in trace minerals and packed with still more varieties of exotic bacteria. The two kinds of soil contain a complex of two discrete living microbiomes, one the fungally-rich virgin forest and the other a bacterially dominated grasslands. The fine biochar particulates provide enough soil structure to retain water – about 10 times the volume of the biochar itself — and aerobic conditions, while providing a coral reef-like microbial habitat. The animal manures, worm castings, feather meal and compostables all contribute to the biodiversity of available microfauna.

In the world of bacterial epigenetics, dictated by the particular demands of diverse members of the web in different seasons and weather conditions, this is a supermarket of genotypes that allow the bacteria to switch up and morph into whatever might be needed for soil health and fertility, capturing passing genes and unlocking regions of their DNA and RNA to provide new or ancient solutions to current conditions.

Bandwidth permitting, you can watch this video that's so sexy it should be x-rated. This is a revolution disguised as organic gardening. The sex is going on right in front of the camera, you’d just need a microscope to see  it. Use your imagination.

If we want to stop global climate change while still surviving unpredictable and changing weather patterns, we’ll need to hold more water, nutrients and carbon in the soil. We can do that with a good diversity of healthy microorganisms and their byproducts. 

We're trying to increase the retention time of carbon in its solid form in the land for as long as possible, as opposed to allowing it to become gaseous, because that's when it becomes dangerous to our future.

That is what climate farming, or what my friend Darren Doherty calls regrarianism, is all about. Its about improving the soil to heal the atmosphere.

As we say in the clip, this is agriculture that builds rather than mines the soil and can transform our beloved home back into a garden planet.

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