Robert Burnap gained international acclaim for his research on the release of oxygen in oxygenic photosynthesis by plants, algae, and cyanobacteria. Such organisms use sunlight to combine water and carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air into organic compounds that serve cells as food. A further product of oxygenic photosynthesis is the oxygen (O2) found in the Earth’s atmosphere. Today, researchers are attempting to use the photosynthesis process as a blueprint for generating alternative, nonfossil fuels such as hydrogen.
In Berlin, Burnap – a microbiologist and molecular geneticist – conducts empirical research in the Collaborative Research Center “Protonation Dynamics in Protein Function” on the role of manganese oxide in the evolution of oxygenic photosynthesis some three billion years ago. This metal compound is bound within the cell to a special protein complex where water is split into electrons, protons (hydrogen nuclei), and oxygen. Robert Burnap uses model organisms to investigate among other things the role of manganese oxide as a catalyst in the development of photosynthesis. Findings from his research support the CO2-neutral production of nonfossil fuels through artificial photosynthesis.
Text: FU Berlin
Please close your eyes for a moment and think about your research project. What do you see at first?
This is actually difficult to accomplish, isn't it? A single graphical mental image is elusive. It seems to vacillate between the people involved and rather abstract images of molecular structures and processes that stretch from very close by to beyond my view. I see our actions and the actions of those around me as we think, meet, and conduct experiments. And I see students.
What would your research project look like if it was a piece of art?
It would be an abstract and colorful installation conveying the impression of a densely branched tree. Trees represent how nature harvests sunlight and even though we are working with photosynthetic microbes, the image of a tree encapsulates the idea of both beauty and sustainable power. Moreover, it is the tree of life, including the early ancestral branches leading through the evolutionary development of photosynthesis and how this transformed the planet.
Please give your research project a suitable fantasy name!
Light driven and highly evolved!
To your opinion, what are the three most meaningful inventions of mankind?
Written language, the concept of zero, and the espresso machine.
With whom would you like to exchange your workplace for one day, and what would you do then?
Assuming the skills come with the switch (!), it would be Yo-Yo Ma. Naturally, I would be playing Bach, but also the other eclectic musical directions he takes and human interactions he makes.
Is there any object of obsession, which accompanies you in your daily life?
In Berlin it's become a bicycle. I almost forgot how great this fundamental mode of transportation is. More generally, it must be my electronic tablet since it contains much of my reading and logistics.
Any rather unusual hobbies you might want to share?
Sounds a bit odd, but one of my favorite hobbies is to tinker laboratory, especially working on scientific instruments. I find this challenging and relaxing and probably a natural extension of my childhood obsession with model airplanes. At one time I was an avid SCUBA diver, but now I like to draw, mostly abstract images.
Is there a place in Berlin that links to the work on your research project?
I am primarily involved in research when I am in Berlin, yet also exploring the city, its music, and museums, every chance I get so I have many associations that somehow link to our research. If I have to pick one It would be Krumme Lanke since swimming there recharges me.