“Natural selection is not a master engineer, but a tinkerer. It doesn’t produce the absolute perfection achievable by a designer starting from scratch, but merely the best it can do with what it has to work with.”
– Jerry Coyne
The human brain is a brilliant organ, capable of goal-oriented behavior and creativity that has birthed the Pyramids, the iPhone, Romeo and Juliet, and the New York City skyline. This purposeful action leads to amazing technological advancements at breakneck speeds, mirroring our species’ dramatic population growth and rapacious resource use.
But we are not the only forces of creation. Evolution also has its canvas, but uses a different brush. Over millions of years, without the intent or purpose of human activity, natural selection has woven a world of complex species, each with its own genetic fingerprint, that rival any human creation in design efficiency and resilience (the “absurd” perfection of the human eye mystified even Charles Darwin).
So what can we learn from Nature’s expertise in refinement? What if we developed technologies that mimicked the best machinery developed from eons of evolution? Photosynthesis, the ubiquitous process that converts solar energy to usable chemical fuel that serves as the foundation for all life on Earth, is a prime example. As fossil fuels dwindle, scientists hope to replicate plant photosynthesis using human-made materials to store light as chemical energy in hydrogen, which has three times the energy density of gasoline. Finding a cheap method to do this could provide clean hydrogen fuel as the basis for a future, fossil-fuel-free economy. So far, attempts have succeeded in reproducing the basic process but have had difficulties keeping devices stable for long periods of time. Now, a recent study1 may have found a solution, bringing artificial photosynthesis closer to a practical reality…
Sun, K., Saadi, F., Lichterman, M., Hale, W., Wang, H., Zhou, X., Plymale, N., Omelchenko, S., He, J., Papadantonakis, K., Brunschwig, B., & Lewis, N. (2015). Stable solar-driven oxidation of water by semiconducting photoanodes protected by transparent catalytic nickel oxide films Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1423034112