We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Otherwise, we'll assume you're OK to continue.

Institute of Advanced Study

Light for Life

In the 19th century the main industrial use for light was illumination. In the 20th century, communication technology moved from electrons in wires to wireless transmissions (radio and microwaves) and fibre optics. In the 21st century, light is seen as a renewable energy source to replace fossil fuels. Solar cells can provide electricity to power equipment directly or can be used to split water into oxygen and hydrogen, which can then be stored, transported and burnt in a fuel cell. The transition from a hydrocarbon-fuelled society to one running off light and hydrogen not only poses major technical and economic challenges, but also has implications for land use, urban design and geopolitics, as the sources of power shift among nations. This sub-theme will consider the harnessing of light for food security as well as harvesting and storing light. Plants get the energy for photosynthesis from visible light, but how does electromagnetic energy become chemical energy to fuel this process? Scientists will come together with the aim of developing new technologies to store photoreceptor captured light energy, especially focusing on the receptors, photocatalytic fuel synthesis and overall efficiency for light to fuel conversion.

Harnessing light energy

Higher plants have to cope with the environmental conditions at the place where they germinate and grow. Light is a key signal required for optimising their adaptation and survival. In the dark, a seedling undergoes skotomorphogenesis where it develops long hypocotyl, and apical hook and closed cotyledons. Under light, however, a seedling changes its developmental program to photomorphogenesis, resulting in a short hypocotyl, opened cotyledons, and the build-up of photosynthetic capacity. Plants have evolved multiple specialised photosensory systems to monitor changes in the surrounding light conditions. The photoreceptors Phytochromes regulate all aspects of photomorphogenic development of plants throughout their whole life-cycle including seed germination, seedling development, the shade avoidance response to detect and escape shading by photosynthetically active neighbors, entrainment of the circadian clock and the onset of flowering. Phytochromes have the capacity to steadily and rapidly sense changes in the incident light composition and thus play a key role in the dynamic adaptation of plants. On a molecular level this is achieved by the photoreversible nature of phytochrome chromoproteins. Phytochromesare are able to absorb light efficiently and convert it into a chemical signal that results in physiological changes leading to plant growth and development. It is important to note that, due to the broad, distinct, and partially overlapping absorbance spectra of Phytochromes the entire light spectrum can be monitored by Phytochromes. Hence Phytochromes can be viewed as efficient light capturing devices which can potentially be used to harness solar energy.

Professor Ferenc Nagy from the Biological Research Center of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences is a world leader in Photobiology. He is a council member of European Molecular Biology (EMBO) organization and has been awarded multiple Howard Hughes fellowships. This IAS program establishes a multidisciplinary project aimed at developing plant photoreceptors as tools for harnessing solar energy and storing it in artificial fuel cells. The program will involve Professor Nagy visiting Durham University in March 2014 and giving an open seminar on the role of Phytochromes in Plant growth and survival. A collaborative workshop on developing plant phortoreceptors as fuel cells involving members from the Department of Physics and Biological and Biomedical Sciences will coincide with Professor Nagy’s visit.

The workshop Making light of Plants will be delivered by Professor Ferenc Nagy between 19 – 21 August 2014 and is by invitation only. For further information please contact; Ari Sadanandom (

Light and the origin of life: the role of manganese

The origin of life is of interest to everyone from scientists to philosophers. Current theories on the origins of life on Earth are far from complete but it is hypothesised that 2.5 billion years ago, photosynthetic oceanic cyanobacteria used light to transform the Earth's atmosphere into one suitable for the evolution of complex life, by producing an oxygen-rich atmosphere. These bacteria were the first to use water as a terminal reductant and this innovation in oxidation of water allowed photosynthetic organisms to leave the oceans and change the face of the Earth. Manganese-containing enzymes were, and still are, the catalyst for photosynthesis today, allowing plants to use light to transform carbon dioxide and water into sugars to support all life on Earth. This activity explores the nature of the ancient carbon. Durham University has discovered in South African manganese oxides dating from the Archean period (2.5 billion years old). This carbon may not only hold clues about the origin of life but it may also help in understanding the potential of modern manganese oxides for sequestering carbon in terrestrial environments.

Manganese-containing enzymes are also an area of interest in engineering applications. Manganese oxides and oxidases are powerful natural oxidants capable of oxidizing potentially toxic organic contaminants. This project has the support of IAS Fellow Professor Brad Tebo, a world leading expert in biogenic manganese oxides. A recent breakthrough by Tebo’s group in expressing a Mn oxidase enzyme in EColi means that engineering applications for using manganese oxides and oxidases to break down micropollutants which cause problems in our drinking water can now be explored.

This programme draws on the established expertise of the engineering and biology departments at Durham and aims to address a number of fundamental issues about the nature of the carbon intercalated in manganese oxide minerals and the potential for using manganese oxides and oxidases in environmental engineering applications.

Professor Tebo will be offering talks within the IAS, and the School of Engineering and Computing Sciences. A workshop on ‘Light and the origin of life: the role of manganese’ is planned in March 2014. Discussion will be centred on the role of manganese in the carbon cycle, both in ancient and modern environmental systems as well as investigating potential environmental engineering applications for manganese oxides and oxidases. The workshop is by invitation only, however for further information, please contact Dr Karen Johnson ( or Dr Ari Sadanandom (

First (artificial) Light

The aim of First (artificial) Light is to establish an evidential basis for an understanding of the impact upon human communities of the first appearance of portable light in the form of lamps. While not found in Britain before the Roman period, lamps are first documented in the East Mediterranean in the later 4th millennium BC. This makes their appearance contemporary with key changes in the organization of human communities in that area such as the development of complex urban settlements.

While Roman lamps have been well studied, and earlier lamps have been catalogued as museum objects, there has been limited research on the impact of artificial light on people’s lives. This programme of work first seeks to establish some basic parameters through empirical research by experimental work using copies of ancient lamps. For example how do light strength, intensity, colour, smell, smokiness etc. vary according to lamp size and design and the choice of fuel - sheep-fat, beeswax, olive oil, sesame oil etc.? Once such baseline data is established it will then be possible to model the likely impact of lamps on activity in different types of space (e.g. tombs and domestic structures) and for example, to explore the relationship between light source, room size, light distributions, the level of light required for different activities, and so establish the extent to which artificial light would have facilitated changes in human economic and social activity.

The collation of archaeological data on the forms, date and spatial extent of early lamps will be undertaken through student dissertations. Accompanying experimental work will be undertaken in collaboration with the Science Learning Centre North East. Activities will be designed for students (with supporting professional development for teachers) to investigate fuel and lamp properties, linking to aspects of the post-16 chemistry curriculum. Primary-aged children and their teachers may also engage in activities investigating how lamps work, imitating lamp manufacture and testing the properties of light generated by different lamps and fuels. The project promotes links between scientific, archaeological and historical concepts in practical, realistic and novel ways.

Term 1

Two twilight planning sessions with two primary teachers.

Two half-day primary science workshops, each for 30 children aged 10 -11.

Term 2

Two twilight planning sessions with four secondary teachers.

Two half-day secondary science workshops, each for 20 16– 17 year olds.

Experimental work will be undertaken in collaboration with SLCNE involving school groups. The project offers a novel opportunity to undertake a cross-curricular investigation of students’ understanding about a practical, everyday item, the portable lamp. Students’ misconceptions relating to light are well documented. This project offers the potential to extend this knowledge by probing ideas about the development and value of portable light sources to human development. En route, the opportunity exists to investigate older students’ understanding of combustion reactions using unusual fuels; and primary-aged students’ thinking about how lamps work, are made and used. Resulting data will form the basis of a journal article which will set the parameters for the technical possibilities of early lamps, and map their forms and distribution across the east Mediterranean. The data gathered will feed into a Research workshop, Light and Dark in Prehistory – The Impact of Artificial Light on Early Human Communities, scheduled for summer 2014, which will bring together scholars to work through the social and economic implications of artificial light on early complex societies.

For further information contact Professor Graham Philip ( and Vanessa Kind (SLCNE -

2013/14 Annual Programme: Light