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Post-Agricultural Food Production

Growing palatable, natural food from arbitrary energy sources without the lossy intermediate of shining light on chlorophyll.

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Mankind is currently dependent on photosynthesis for nearly all food production, despite having a variety of established and developing energy sources and stores of energy. Artificial light can be used to drive photosynthesis, but this has very poor efficiency. For the most part, we rely on open-air agriculture and phytoplankton, which are vulnerable to weather, climate change, natural disasters, nuclear war, and pollution.

Economical industrial production of macronutrients from potentially abiotic energy stores (such as syngas and methane) through microbial intermediates is currently under active development. We might synthesize micronutrients and raise animals on this feed, but humans also eat fruits, vegetables, grains, etc.

This is an attempt at feeding storable chemicals like sugar or pyruvic acid directly into the leaves, phloem, or other parts of plants, so they will grow without light, faster, in much less space, and fresh on demand without regard to weather or season.

Basic Considerations

Leaves use energy from sunlight to produce sugar. Edible parts of plants grow by feeding on this sugar, not by directly relying on the light. The sugar is transported in the phloem, and making plants grow in the dark may be as simple as injecting sugar water into the phloem, like intravenously feeding humans. However, the leaves may also release hormones signalling that light is received, and the growth, healing, and anti-predation responses of the phloem might make this kind of feeding technically challenging.

Within the leaf, there are other intermediate steps between light and sugar. Pyruvate is one of the intermediate chemicals, and it's also a substance which human chemists have long been able to synthesize from the simplest materials without the aid of any living thing. I'm hopeful that simply injecting pyruvic acid into leaves of some plants will cause them to be taken up and made into sugar.

Another interesting possibility is feeding plants on ethanol. Where humans and other animals produce lactic acid from sugar during anaerobic metabolism (such as during intense activity), plants get energy from making ethanol (such as when sprouting). In each case, once oxygen is available, this fermentation product can be broken down further for additional energy or recycled into sugar or other materials. Ethanol is a simpler molecule than pyruvic acid, and easier to synthesize. I would enjoy attempting to produce a microreactor that turns hydrogen and CO2 sources into a flow of ethanol, and find a plant or fungus which can be grafted into a frame to be continuously fed ethanol and tapped for a continuous flow of sugar-rich sap.

There are many possible methods of "injection", from merely abrading the surface and clamping a soaked, drip-fed cloth to the abrasion, to a microstructured biocompatible grafting frame. Naturally, I intend to start with the crudest methods, and work my way toward more sophisticated techniques.

"Foliar feeding" may also be possible, with plants accepting food through undamaged surfaces, though it would be pure serendipity if that were enough for them to be grown in total darkness. Parasitic plants and fungi may provide better shortcuts, or at least inspiration.

Project Aims and Limitations

This is intended as a proof-of-concept project, with the aim of demonstrating any edible plant product being repeatably produced in darkness by chemical feeding, at least with an indefinitely storable feedstock (such as table sugar or corn starch), and preferably by one known to be produceable by a method which can take an abiotic energy source.

I have basically no qualifications to pursue this project, and am approaching it as a fun hobby. My main hope is to attract the interest of people with more useful knowledge and collect their suggestions or provoke some of them with my own fumblings into doing it better themselves. There has been a lot of work on plant metabolism and grafting, so I'm starting out by searching and studying the literature in my spare time. It may be that the essential methods have already been discovered.

Commercialization and Individual Use Potential

I think the nearest-term economically-viable application would be locally producing fresh fruits and vegetables from stored sugar or starch and fertilizers, which are inexpensive, dense, imperishable, and easy to ship. The benefit would be higher quality produce at lower cost and lower total energy consumption.

In the medium term, I think methods of feeding and tapping off plants could also take over sugar, starch, and whole grain production. This would be less about efficiency, and more about consistency of output, food security, and reducing land use and environmental impact.

I see this as a highly evolvable concept, which could be made more and more efficient as more sophisticated methods are developed, and eventually be applied to meat production as well. I see an incremental path from simply feeding whole plants, to having a grafting interface...

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  • My Onion Wears A Tinfoil Hat

    Darrell Johnson04/24/2015 at 02:57 0 comments

    It is very concerned about CIA mind-control rays. Also, this is a relatively easy way to keep it mostly in the dark.

    So this is the same feeding method 3, foliar feeding by submerging leaves in sugar water. I'm using plastic wrap to keep dust out of the sugar water, hopefully slowing the time it will take for fungus to take over, and it also holds the leaves down.

    The plant has seemed pretty healthy, like it was growing well, despite the submerged portion (maybe just the new growth?) turning white, so I've decided to take it dark by covering it in aluminum foil. It's not perfectly isolated from light, but if it grew a fat onion bulb this way, I'd be satisfied that it would grow in total darkness from this sort of leaf-immersion foliar feeding (of course, I'd set up a more strict demonstration).

    This was a green onion from the grocery store, so the bulb is still very small. I'd say it's smaller now than when it started (I think it has been spending stored energy to grow). I think it has been putting its energy into growing roots and leaves. I did not sprout the roots before planting in soil, and I can't really observe the root growth easily because it's in soil. Keeping the roots in water would probably have been smarter.

    I'll miss this cheerful little plant growing in the light. It was funny, reaching all around, in every direction as it grew.

    Incidentally, green onions are really easy and cheap to grow at home. You don't even need soil, they will just grow with the bulb in some water, if you put them by a window. You can pull leaves off, and they will keep growing. Nutritious and tasty greens and herbs are often easy to grow with little light or space because of their low energy content. It's a shame that people with empty windows ever lack fresh vegetables because they think they can't grow anything for themselves in an apartment, or during winter, and think of fresh vegetables as expensive.

    Maybe someone else would like to do a project of cheap garden curtains. Really get the cost down and convenience and attractiveness up, try to make it interesting enough that everybody hears about it. I wonder what already exists along these lines. I've only really seen herb-garden kits, but I haven't done much looking...

  • Considering Vinegar

    Darrell Johnson04/18/2015 at 05:27 0 comments

    I'll have to consider vinegar (acetic acid) as another possible feedstock.

    Using a bacteria that accepts electrical feeding, these guys are aiming for a sunlight-to-chemical-energy conversion process 30 times more efficient than leaves:

    https://newscenter.lbl.gov/2015/04/16/major-advance-in-artificial-photosynthesis/

    Of course, they don't need to use sunlight. S. ovata can be fed from any electrical power source. I'd like to play around with this myself.

    This sort of thing being developed is why I think we should be making an effort to bypass the leaves of plants. Leaves are cheap, but not efficient (and far too sensitive to environmental conditions).

    Acetic acid is very closely related to acetyl-CoA, so this is another thing, like pyruvate or ethanol, which plants might accept as a source of carbon and energy, to make sugar from.

    One thing that interests me about acetic acid, which is largely unrelated to this project, is that you can easily get it to decompose into methane and CO2, with very simple equipment. So the pure stuff (called "glacial acetic acid", since it freezes around room temperature) can be used almost as liquid form of methane. Easier to store and handle than cryogenic LNG, anyway, although as a fuming acid, it's not entirely benign. Production of acetic acid (plus an oxygen store like a peroxide or nitrate) might make a good basis for the energy economy of a Mars mission, especially if it can be used for food production as well as fuel.

    So far, my list of things to try is: sucrose, dextrose, corn starch, potato starch, tapioca starch, ethanol, vinegar, and pyruvate. Pyruvate's kind of a last resort for me now. It's available as a salt in supplements, but it seems expensive and likely a hassle to extract.

    Back in the world of experiments, my onion plant's submerged tip is losing its color. I think that method 3 is going to be a failure. I was not expecting much from these crude methods, but I'd feel silly if I learned later that something like this was all I needed to do. I wonder about an aeroponic system, where the plant is turned sideways so its roots can be misted with fertilizer while its leaves are misted with sugar. I should at least give that a try.

  • Feeding Method 3

    Darrell Johnson04/16/2015 at 17:21 0 comments

    This poor onion was suffering from mold around the base. I spilled too much sugar into the soil, and kept it too wet in the dark.

    I removed the feeding apparatus, and gave it a few days in the light, so the mold would die. I'm noticing a general problem here, that fungus is everywhere, and unlike plants, have actually evolved to gobble up external sugar. I will have to learn more about how plants protect themselves from having fungus grow into them.

    I'm trying a new method, of simply dipping the cut tip in sugar water (there's a chip out of the sugar-water cup, so the plant is not being squished):

    This time, I'm making no effort to isolate it from light. I won't know for sure from this kind of experiment whether it's actually working, but I will be able to see if the sugar-water is causing obvious harm. Not killing the plant seems like an important thing to learn.

    This is fairly thin sugar-water. Syrup might work better. I know you can store syrup at room temperature for a long time without having fungus grow in it, while sugar water is eventually going to ferment. I'll have to give that a try, too.

    I've come across an interesting page on DIY microfluidics, which I think is the right kind of thinking, if not specifically applicable methods, for making a grafting interface:

    http://science-practice.com/blog/2015/01/29/low-tech-microfluidics/

  • Cottonball Feeding

    Darrell Johnson04/07/2015 at 19:58 0 comments

    I am altering the deal. Pray I do not alter it further.

    Now I've got a bit of cotton stuck down the cut tube of the onion, and a wad of cotton on top of it (from little cotton pads I had; I'll have to pick up some actual cotton balls too, since the pads are kind of annoying), held up with chopsticks and twist-ties. Right now the cotton's just wet, since the tube has still got sugar syrup in it, but I'll add sugar to the water later.

    Same onion. I figured I didn't want to leave it and see what would happen, since the top of the cut tube was shriveling. So I cut off the least healthy looking parts and decided to try this way to keep the cut-off end wet.

    On the research end of things, I found this interesting paper, on making a lab-scale bioreactor for syngas to ethanol:

    http://www.ndsu.edu/fileadmin/aben/SYNGAS_FERMENTER.pdf

    A wood gasifier makes syngas from wood (and should be able to run on inedible straw and other agricultural waste). Because it works by partial combustion, it doesn't care about the cellulose/lignin distinction (lignin is the tougher part of wood, and a problem for digesters). This is an oldish technology that pops up on farms when oil, and therefore conventional liquid fuels, gets expensive, because it's actually fairly straightforward to convert trucks and tractors to run on it.

    You don't need to run a fermenter to make ethanol from syngas (it's simple molecule, there are abiotic chemical pathways), but it's probably the easiest thing for a small operation.

    So this might be the basis for a workable low-tech pathway from indiscriminate plant matter, which is abundant and easily stored, to fresh food. If you can make a wood gasifier out of mud and clay, and clay pot fermenters and other bioreactors, this could be really low-capital.

    I wonder how hard it would be to fully feed people off of wood and straw, with simple equipment that can all be made with hand tools and fire, with starter samples of the right organisms, and maybe some cheap stuff like plastic sheets and staples...

    Raising edible mushrooms and termites for chicken feed seem the simplest things. It's amazing what termites and fungus can eat. Can people live with mushrooms as a staple? Could they be happy with it? What else besides chicken and mushrooms do they need for a healthy and satisfying diet? Anyway, I'm drifting too far afield.

    Wood to syngas to ethanol... then what can we feed the ethanol to, and how? What else can we feed the syngas to, and what can it make that's useful?

    As I mentioned in the project summary, there are companies already developing industrial-scale commercial applications of methane or syngas to food (or at least to animal feed):

    http://www.unibio.dk/what-is-uniprotein%C2%AE/

    http://www.lanzatech.com/innovation/technical-overview/

    This is important technology, with potential to increase the supply and lower the cost of food, and I'm glad to see it developed. But I also think that companies like this have an interest in limiting their technology to the large factory.

    I'd like to see this sort of thing put to practical use on the individual and small-business scale, at a do-it-yourself level of complexity and unencumbered by patents. That way, it can develop faster and be used for more purposes.

  • First Experiment

    Darrell Johnson04/07/2015 at 00:29 0 comments

    Dear Internet,

    Today I stuffed a green onion full of sugar like a pixie stick, to see if this is a way to make an onion which is bigger and not green.

    Am I a real science-ist yet?

    Actually, I used sugar water, and it was probably mixed too strong. It kind of shriveled on me within the first ten minutes. Then I spilled it in the soil and had to move the onion to another pot. This is soil for violets I had sitting around. I have no idea if it's suitable for onions.

    I'm not prepared yet to do any proper experimentation, but you've got to start somewhere, to build momentum if nothing else. I don't want this to just be a looking-things-up project.

    The onion is currently in a dark closet. If this one works, I will be very surprised.

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Morning.Star wrote 01/02/2017 at 13:18 point

Thats an interesting line of thinking. While I applaud your methodical approach you might have better luck with another plant?

Onions as you say dont store a lot of sugar in their bulbs, ergo they are not good at processing it and keeping it safe from predation. They are pretty much all leaf, and if its leaves you are trying to replace...

It strikes me you may have more success with one that has a good storage system, like sugar beet for example. Besides their ability to tuck complex sugars away, beets are resistant to fungus and overwinter so have mechanisms to deal with low light and probably depend more on temperature to control growth.

I'm not much of a biologist, or a gardener either. But it was just a thought.

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regzy wrote 04/07/2015 at 02:47 point

Interesting project Darrell. I think an interesting A/B test would be to try growing another onion without the use of soil. Perhaps a mini aeropoinc pot system. 

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Darrell Johnson wrote 04/07/2015 at 03:12 point

Thanks. I think a practical system for growing vegetables would probably use aeroponics or hydroponics, if there isn't a good way to bypass the root system entirely. Dirt's the easiest thing for my initial attempts at getting sugar into plants.

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