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KNOXVILLE – Popeye’s favorite vegetable may help some blind people regain their sight.

Eli Greenbaum, a University of Tennessee professor of biological physics, is studying a protein found in spinach that may replace a non-functioning light receptor in the human eye.

Greenbaum says sight might be returned through a process of photosynthesis, which is how plants convert light into electrical energy.

“Our trick is to extract the microscopic photovoltaic structure from the cells of spinach leaves,” Greenbaum said, “and attempt to insert them into the retina of the eye. There, the voltage generated when the light strikes them will hopefully enable blind people to see.”

Greenbaum says people would have had to have their eyesight earlier in life for this process to work.

“There are two classes of adult-onset blindness that could get some help, macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa,” Greenbaum said. “People born blind would likely not be helped by this procedure.”

Greenbaum is conducting his work at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where he collaborates with researchers from Johns Hopkins University and the University of Southern California.