The "first man-made biological leaf"
could enable humans to colonise space

Dezeen and MINI Frontiers: RCA graduate Julian Melchiorri says the synthetic biological leaf he developed, which absorbs water and carbon dioxide to produce oxygen just like a plant, could enable long-distance space travel.

Silk Leaf by Julian Melchiorri
Silk Leaf by Julian Melchiorri

"Plants don't grow in zero gravity," explains Melchiorri. "NASA is researching different ways to produce oxygen for long-distance space journeys to let us live in space. This material could allow us t0 explore space much further than we can now."

Silk Leaf by Julian Melchiorri

Melchiorri's Silk Leaf project, which he developed as part of the Royal College of Art's Innovation Design Engineering course in collaboration with Tufts University silk lab, consists of chloroplasts suspended in a matrix made out of silk protein.

Silk Leaf by Julian Melchiorri

"The material is extracted directly from the fibres of silk," Melchiorri explains. "This material has an amazing property of stabilising molecules. I extracted chloroplasts from plant cells and placed them inside this silk protein. As an outcome I have the first photosynthetic material that is living and breathing as a leaf does."

Silk Leaf by Julian Melchiorri
Chloroplasts suspended in silk protein

Like the leaves of a plant, all Melchiorri's Silk Leaf needs to produce oxygen is light and a small amount of water.

Silk Leaf by Julian Melchiorri
Silk Leaf lamps by Julian Melchiorri

"Silk Leaf is the first man-made biological leaf," he claims. "It's very light, low energy-consuming, it's completely biological."

Silk Leaf by Julian Melchiorri
Visualisation of a photosynthetic facade by Julian Melchiorri

"My idea was to use the efficiency of nature in a man-made environment," he explained. "I created some lighting out of this material, using the light to illuminate the house but at the same time to create oxygen for us."

Silk Leaf by Julian Melchiorri
Visualisation of photosynthetic filters for buildings by Julian Melchiorri

However, Melchiorri says the material could also be used at a much larger scale.

"It could [also] be used for outdoor applications," he says. "So facades, ventilation systems. You can absorb air from outside, pass it through these biological filters and then bring oxygenated air inside."

Julian Melchiorri
Julian Melchiorri

Dezeen and MINI Frontiers is a year-long collaboration with MINI exploring how design and technology are coming together to shape the future.

The music featured in the movie is a track called October by UK Producer Jo Noon. You can listen to the full track on Dezeen Music Project.

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  • Facepalm

    Guess what? Plants do just fine without gravity.

    • Sighcakes

      Yeah, but you know there is this thing called water, and soil. And some planets don’t have that and it’s kind of important. These don’t need it, which is what the point of them is.

      • Andreas Stangl

        But that was not the claim. The claim was that they don’t grow in zero gravity. And that is clearly wrong and therefore should be clarified.

    • iksnilol

      Guess what? Plants can’t be made in all the shapes that this can. Also, it doesn’t require soil.

  • Aion Memoria

    I want the entire surface of my home walls to produce oxygen please.

    • Concerned Citizen

      Buy plants. They already exist.

  • ninokar

    Tell me if i got this right. This guy went and got silk and formed a leaf shape out of it. Then he got actual leaves and extracted the chlorophyl from them only to put it into the “fake silk leaf” so it can do what the actual leaf he destroyed did in the first place without any help from us? Is that right?

    • cryo

      Er, no. You don’t have to destroy plants to extract cells from them.

      • ninokar

        I wasn’t being sentimental about the destruction of individual leaves, just the extra work to take something and use it unchanged (probably) somewhere else.

        • tom

          Think of it as multiplying leaves. One leaf can make say 100 fake leaves. It’s not that he is making a fake one to do what the original one already did, it’s that you can just keep making fake ones from the original one.

          • Concerned Citizen

            According to the story, he IS making a fake leaf to mimic the real thing, although nothing was said about it providing food for a plant.

    • Concerned Citizen

      Yes, you got it right.

    • Alex

      Yeah, how long does it last? Surely chloroplasts don’t just continue working after being extracted.

    • Devon Gronka

      Plants (and most living things) grow oddly or totally incorrectly without gravity. They are also heavy, as is fertiliser and the water it would take to sustain them. This allows you to send just the photosynthetic part of the plant to space and have it work pretty much indefinitely.

      It may be useless for the “general public”, but for certain fields this is ground-breaking and absolutely amazing. It’s isolating a certain function of the cell and then creating a material that does just that.

  • smartz118

    Plants can grow in zero and low gravity. They did it on the International Space Station.

    • Concerned Citizen


      • anony

        It says in the article that they can’t.

  • Beauty & The Boy(Andrew James)

    It’s sad that people would rather put this guy down than actually admit this is an amazing thing and could have so many different applications.

    Instead of tearing each other down because we are jealous we should be praising people for their breakthroughs.

    • canyourepeatthequestion

      I somewhat blame the writer, as the details leave a lot to be desired. What is the anticipated life of the chloroplasts? What becomes of the waste carbon and hydrogen? What level of efficiency can be achieved verses normal plants? What type of maintenance do these artificial leaves require?

      I personally remain skeptical of “world altering breakthroughs” until questions like the above are answered.

      • ninokar

        Yes, I agree with you. My main problem was the lack of information as well.

    • Concerned Citizen

      It’s not that amazing, actually. Other people have invented new things, not just combine two things.

  • ivan q

    Do these require less water than plants because they don’t need to sustain roots or reproductive systems? And do they live longer because they don’t need to do these things?

  • Ikeleaka Kaluva

    That is a miracle. Now we need to encourage a Kickstarter campaign with the likes of Elon Musk Space X Rockets, and send a mass cluster to Mars’ north pole. Maybe it will help establish a habitable atmosphere.

    And maybe if we had a bio printer we could manufacture a few shipping containers worth and send it to China. We might become famous like the last great dictator, Mao.

    An incredible feat.

    I would definitely buy the first leaf/appliance and place in my room.

    Mahalo for your long sleepless nights creating something like this. That should give you a Nobel prize, Dyson award, and others.

    • Concerned Citizen

      FAR from a miracle. It’s pretty basic combinations. It even happens without human intervention.

  • Ikeleaka Kaluva

    Wait there’s more… You could create sheets rolled into cylindrical shapes in a clear casing and make oxygen, by creating a fan on one side to force polluted air through it, like an air filter perhaps. And place them in tunnels, on sides of buildings, melting glaciers, aloft in the air on solar blimps, to replenish the air and relieve us of greenhouse gases, from industrial toxins, in our air.

    Everything is awesome.

    • Concerned Citizen

      No, it doesn’t do that. The same toxins that harm humans can harm leaves, too.

  • ninokar

    I have read the article. Soil and root systems don’t require electricity. Actual plants already can produce oxygen for patients.

    • weebo

      Seems you did a poor job reading it, these ‘leaves’ require light, not electricity.

      • ninokar

        “It’s very light, low ENERGY-consuming”. I think you may have missed this part.

        • bzyq

          Seems like you need to do further reading on the topic. Energy is not the same as what electricity is.

        • Concerned Citizen

          It’s low-oxygen producing, too.

      • Concerned Citizen

        Where do you get light inside a structure?

  • obfuscate99

    What about the chloroplast genes that are encoded in the nucleus? Chloroplasts have offloaded quite a few genes, which are under regulatory control of the host plant. Without those genes, the system will eventually break down due to failures in the photosystem.

    If the chloroplast has been modified, it would have been nice to see some details.

  • eddie

    Actually there is a reduced level of oxygen in most cities compared to other places.

    • ninokar

      Or is it that cars produce too much CO2 within cities that the percentage of oxygen is less than it use to be without it actually being less? Unless you mean that something is eating oxygen up or driving it outside cities.

  • potter

    I think you will find, as they stated in the actual journal, that the size of the flight plants (as measured by primary root and hypocotyl length) was uniformly smaller than comparably aged Ground Control plants in both cultivars.

    Implying that they did not “grow fine without gravity”.

  • Woody

    What happens to the carbon and hydrogen absorbed in the reaction?

    Water (H20) + carbon dioxide CO2 => O2 + O2 (oxygen gas) + CH4 (methane gas).

    O2 + H2 + Graphite (C)

    O2 + H2 + Diamond (also carbon)

    O2 + Sugars?

    Where do the sugars go? Washed away with excess water? Or clogging up the silk?

  • s

    Considering most of the oxygen produced on Earth comes from algae at the bottom of the sea, this seems to be a really good innovation in terms of generating oxygen, because these leaves WILL eventually be upgraded to the point that it generates more than a leaf. So yeah.

    • Concerned Citizen

      Where do you get that?

  • BlackICE

    I see this more as a carbon dioxide absorber than an oxygen producer. Think about global warming and if we can reduce our carbon dioxide levels. However, do these leaves also release carbon dioxide at night when not lit as plants have two cycles of photosynthesis and respiration.

  • a yu

    Global warming may be can be slowed by silk leaf.
    Let’s see what happens.

    • Concerned Citizen

      LOL. Why not? If a plastic bag can destroy the earth, why can’t a piece of silk save it?

  • Concerned Citizen

    “first man-made biological leaf” is less fact than bragging. What he did is the same as grafting a branch onto a tree, just at a smaller scale. Nothing man-made about it.

  • Diabolus

    I was going to make the same comment, but I am two days late.

  • ABC

    There’s no way that a chloroplast plucked from the supporting biochemistry of a plant cell will function in said artificial leaf. We’ve been able to isolate chloroplasts for over 50 years and simply embedding them in a matrix does not equal synthetic biology.

    Finally, why not use algal cells which would be photosynthetically self sufficient and far more
    tolerant? Naive on so many levels.

  • An0nym0usC0ward

    Still, if he manages to make the chloroplasts survive for a commercially viable time (say years), and finds a way to produce them artificially, it’s a very smart thing to do. Everything starts with a clumsy, sub-optimal prototype.

    • ninokar

      Yes, but then the question is is it even worth the time and money?

      • Roger Wade

        Give it up. You’ve been shown multiple times you don’t know what you’re talking about.

      • rogo

        We won’t know unless we try, as with a lot of science this could have unforeseen benefits.

  • Joram

    The fun starts when some photooxidative damage occurs and the photosynthesis machinery is broken. Then there is no cell to replace the components that are missing or damaged.

    Intact and live chloroplast undergo constant protein turnover in the plant cell, supported from the cell. Just isolating a chloroplast will keep it active for a few hours, days maybe with dim light and optimal conditions. But as soon as you put that “leaf” on the side of a house facing south the light stress will kill all chloroplasts in minutes.

    This looks good on photos and popular sciences sites, but has nothing to do with real-life biology.

  • ninokar

    I don’t think that’s right. You can produce electricity from light, but you can’t power anything with light (that is without having to convert it).

    • James Hill

      Have you ever heard that the energy used by plants to produce oxygen and carbohydrate from water and carbon dioxide is ‘sun light’? Never heard they used electricity!! Read more about forms of energy.

  • Shri Kalyanika

    Leaves a lot of questions unanswered. What about the by-products of photosynthesis apart from water? The discovery of growing plants without gravity in space was already made by NASA. This is no new huge advancement.

    Chloroplasts are rather fragile organelles, and while they will probably survive for longer than in a real leaf – because of a lack of degrading enzymes – removed from a plant, that won’t necessarily be enough to allow them to work for a prolonged period.

  • MrRess

    Very sketchy science in this article.

  • Concerned Citizen

    There is nothing he did that could not have happened naturally. And, as has been proven over and over, man cannot improve on nature.

  • Roiana Haydel Buckmaster

    As cool as this is (and I am sure it will have a great deal of practical applications in the future) plants DO in fact grow on the International Space Station. They are actually working on growing their own salad greens as we speak.

  • Hei

    Did anyone read the “could enable long-distance space travel” thing? No? Just me? Because everyone is like “but we have trees already! This is useless! What a douche!” Yeah, on Earth we do have trees. But not in space…

  • kid_you_not

    Oxygen is not good for you. It is highly corrosive. Ever hear of ANTI-OXIDANTS? Yes, it is needed but you can have too much.

  • Muntoo Meddler

    The last two sentences are totally irrelevant to the rest of your comment. The amount of O2 it produces is likely minimal (the reaction rate of photosynthesis is far slower than human respiration).

    Like ninokar, I am also concerned about the efficiency and practicality of the artificial leaf. It’s aesthetic and sounds cool, but wouldn’t some sort of chemical solution be much more efficient, scalable and reliable?

  • TheMohawkNinja .

    This is a pretty cool concept. I mean, it basically means that we could have cities that were basically invisible as far as carbon emissions go.

  • random pedestrian

    Can you smoke it? Hmm better yet, can you smoke it in space? Whoa!

  • James Hill

    How long do the chloroplasts live in this mesh? Do they (chloroplasts in the mesh) produce carbohydrate just as the plants do? Perhaps these are the questions you must be trying to find answers right now.
    If we can make use of algae, especially blue-greens that have become a nuisance in many water bodies, to extract chloroplasts for this project, I think we are up on the deal!

Posted on Friday, July 25th, 2014 at 5:29 pm by Ben Hobson. See our copyright policy.

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