Sammy the Chlamy is a single-celled alga currently starring in a 3:28 original musical video on YouTube that advances the notion that Sammy and her kind can blunt climate change and curb world hunger. Chlamy is, of course, short for Chlamydomonas, a green alga that like all plants can photosynthesize, but unlike many plants, has a carbon concentrating mechanism (CCM) that many researchers believe could be harnessed to reduce the nitrogen and water requirements of staple food crops. ASCB member Martin Jonikas at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, CA, is a strong believer in Chlamy’s CCM powers and assembled the team that made “Sammy the Chlamy,” who appears onscreen as an adorable puppet with “two tails on her head and a big red eye that’s red.” Sammy dances up a storm in support of the virtues of her CCM.
“It occurred to me that having a song about our research would be a cool way of doing outreach,” Jonikas explains. He contacted Jonathan Mann, a musician who Jonikas admires for his science-related songs. “He (Jonathan) was excited about (the idea),” Jonikas recalls. Stanford grad student Liz Freeman and technician Nina Ivanova in the Jonikas lab worked with Mann to conceive Sammy, write the song, brainstorm a video plotline, a barnyard setting, and sketches of Sammy and her non-CCM vegetable friends. They outsourced the actual sewing to Krystal Tomlinson, a puppet seamstress they found on Etsy, the goliath online crafts market.
There is serious science behind the hard-to-get-out-of-your-head song that Mann and the Jonikas lab put together. All photosynthetic organisms get their carbon by fixing atmospheric CO2 into sugar. CCMs make the carbon-fixing process more efficient and less sensitive to oxygen, making the organisms that employ them more tolerant of heat and water stress. CCMs are employed by cyanobacteria, nearly all algae, and some land plants. The plant version of the CCM is called C4 carbon fixation, and many plants, including corn and sugarcane, evolved this strategy. The CCMs in algae work differently from that in plants, but they share a common carbon-fixing enzyme, RuBisCO.
By understanding the algal CCM, Jonikas hopes that the mechanism can be introduced into crops through genetic modification. By giving crops a CCM, he says, “It would allow you to grow more biomass for the same amount of input, and it would help you be more sustainable, because having a CCM can increase nitrogen and water use efficiencies by 50%.”
Jonikas continues, “[Making] nitrogen fertilizer consumes a lot of natural gas, leading to the emission of greenhouse gasses, and it’s generally applied in excess, then flows into the ocean, where it kills marine life.” Engineering CCMs into crops could cut down on the amount of fertilizer needed, thus reducing the environmental impact of agriculture, Jonikas believes.
But engineering genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has its challenges, perhaps the least of which is public mistrust. “We have to be careful when we are messing with the biology that surrounds us and feeds us,” Jonikas warns, “but I see huge opportunities for making significant beneficial changes through GMO, like allowing more sustainable agriculture.”
Jonikas is not the only researcher who sees opportunities for more efficient agriculture through CCMs. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation supports a project working toward giving rice a C4 CCM. A separate project called Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency is investigating ways to engineer plants to be more efficient, including engineering a cyanobacterial CCM, which is relatively well understood.
Jonikas thinks CCMs in agriculture are not that far in the future. “My guess is that it’s somewhere between 5-15 years before some approach of enhancing carbon fixation is made to work in a higher plant… it’s probably about 20-30 years before crops have such new mechanisms in them,” he estimates. Now much of the research is focused on understanding the mechanisms, and for the Jonikas lab, also sharing it with the public.
That’s why Jonikas takes Sammy the Chlamy seriously. “I’m hopeful that [this video] will make people curious about photosynthetic organisms. As a society, we take photosynthetic organisms for granted. I did for the first 25 years of my life. They’re these things that are part of our every day, we buy them, we eat them, it’s part of life, they’re so normal that we don’t think about them. We don’t think about how fundamental they are to the existence of life on earth and our civilization. I think that understanding how they work will be key to addressing many of the big challenges we face in the coming century, from climate change to feeding our growing population.”
About the Author:
Christina Szalinski is a science writer with a PhD in Cell Biology from the University of Pittsburgh.