Magazine article Science News

Photosynthetic Algae Go Quantum: Long-Lasting Coherence May Explain Electron Transfer Efficiency

Magazine article Science News

Photosynthetic Algae Go Quantum: Long-Lasting Coherence May Explain Electron Transfer Efficiency

Article excerpt

A dash of sunlight, a sprinkle of light-harvesting proteins and a healthy dollop of carbon dioxide is about all it takes to whip up a batch of tasty plant food--but you might want some quantum physics to stir the pot. A team has caught photosynthetic marine- and lake-dwelling algae performing quantum tricks at room temperature. The results, in the Feb. 4 Nature, suggest that quantum mechanics maybe at the heart of sunlight-to-energy conversion in living organisms.

"This is quantum mechanics in a biological system," says study coauthor Gregory Scholes, a physical chemist at the University of Toronto.

Photosynthesis relies on proteins that absorb incoming photons, or particles of light. In the algae, these photons excite electrons in the proteins, touching off a series of electron transfers that ultimately ferry the energy-laden electrons to centralized collection stations (called photosystems) where the conversion of energy to carbohydrates begins.

Under normal rules, electrons would travel to their destinations with quick random hops. But studies of photosynthetic bacteria and plants suggest that the electrons might act more like correlated waves instead of hopping particles, a behavior predicted by quantum mechanics (SN: 5/9/09, p. 26). These studies have mainly seen such quantum effects at very low temperatures. Scholes and colleagues devised an experiment to see whether these quantum-mechanical wavelike properties were also present at ambient temperatures. …

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