Washington, DC—Carnegie algal physiologist Adrien Burlacot was selected for the 2023 class of Forbes’ 30 Under 30 North America list in science.
The 30 Under 30 global platform recognizes early career excellence across 20 categories and includes in-person summits around the world, as well as robust social media and marketing efforts. The honorees were chosen for their “unconventional thinking,” Forbes said in its announcement of the new class, describing them as individuals “who have rewritten rules, reshaped industries, and are breaking ground towards a brighter future.”
The recognition spotlights Burlacot’s efforts to fight world hunger and mitigate climate change by hacking the process plants use to convert the Sun’s energy into chemical energy in the form of sugars and fats. Called photosynthesis, this series of biochemical reactions is essential for life as we know it. Photosynthesis underpins our entire food supply and has transformed our planet’s atmosphere, enabling complex organisms to evolve and thrive.
Despite its fundamental contributions, photosynthesis is not very efficient. It’s actually a victim of its own success. Back when the process evolved, Earth’s atmosphere was richer in carbon dioxide—the molecule plants, algae, and photosynthetic bacteria pull out of the air to produce food. But thanks to the efforts of early photosynthetic organisms and biogeochemical reactions, the atmosphere is now poor in CO2, making it more difficult to lock down the necessary carbon.
“I come from the countryside of France where agriculture dominates the economic landscape,” Burlacot explained. “As a child, I was driven by the idea of using farms to power a sustainable world where fossil fuels are obsolete. Later, I was surprised to learn that photosynthetic organisms are infrequently used to manufacture goods and energy because of the self-sabotage built into this complex biochemical process.”
Six years ago, he decided to tackle the challenge of photosynthetic inefficiency, with the hopes of improving the productivity of crops that could yield not just more food, but also plastic replacements, biofuels, pharmaceuticals, and even cosmetics, as well as remove carbon pollution from the atmosphere to fight global warming.
Burlacot believes his work can help develop a sustainable bioeconomy based on sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide and that studying microalgae is the key to advancing this new way of life. These algae have evolved methods for improving their ability to grab carbon dioxide from the atmosphere—tools that can be harnessed to turn plants into living factories for producing broad swaths of sustainable goods and mitigating climate change.
Burlacot joined Carnegie last year as a Staff Associate—a prestigious position designed for early career scientists who are ready to independently deploy creative approaches to challenging research projects.
“Adrien is plotting a roadmap for enhancing photosynthesis and building a more sustainable economy,” said Biosphere Sciences and Engineering Director Margaret McFall-Ngai. “This well-deserved recognition by Forbes heralds what is sure to be a groundbreaking career. I am eager to see how his research directions progress as he continues to track down this problem.”