Quantum Leaf? Algae Use Physics Trick to Boost Photosynthesis Efficiency

By Andrew Moseman | February 4, 2010 5:25 pm

marine algaeThe primary reactions in photosynthesis—the first steps in plants’ conversion of sunlight energy into energy stored in carbohydrates—are incredibly efficient. And in a new study in Nature, chemists reveal that they may have found part of the reason why: quantum mechanics.

A couple years ago, scientists first showed in bacteria proteins that the electrons were moving according to a quantum mechanical phenomenon called coherence, rather than abiding by the classical laws of physics. But where those early experiments had been cooled to 77 kelvins (–196 degrees Celsius)—this experiment was the first conducted at room temperature, 294 K, to replicate such effects [Scientific American]. Thus, the new study, which was done on marine algae, suggests this phenomenon can occur in a living biological system.

Quantum coherence occurs when an electron interacts with more than one molecule at a time, entering a multi-state kind of existence. Study leader Greg Scholes explains this quantum trick in a slightly simpler way: “The analogy I like is if you have three ways of driving home through rush hour traffic. On any given day, you take only one. You don’t know if the other routes would be quicker or slower. But in quantum mechanics, you can take all three of these routes simultaneously. You don’t specify where you are until you arrive, so you always choose the quickest route” [Wired.com].

To see if this was happening in their test algae, the scientists targeted lasers onto antenna proteins, which play the role of routing the solar energy the plant receives to places where the photosynthetic reactions are taking place. The incredibly short laser bursts sent electrons spinning that the team could track. Sure enough, the energy passed simultaneously through multiple pathways, the team says, showing coherence at work.

The researchers can’t yet say how widespread this trick is in the plant kingdom. But if coherence happens in many different plants, it could help to explain why photosynthesis is so efficient. “That vibrating electron could put some feelers out and see which path to take,” Scholes says [Science News].

Related Content:
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80beats: Crazy Chlorophyll-Using Sea Slug Is Part-Animal, Part-Plant
80beats: Inside a Tree Leaf, It’s Always a Balmy 70 Degrees

Image: NASA

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Physics & Math
  • http://philosophiareflextions.blogspot.com Ernie M. Brewer

    Cool.
    Read my blog!
    “The Uncertainty of Self in the Cosmos”.

  • Dave

    Again nature is showing us what is up.

  • http://www.prosite.de Domain

    Very cool. Maybe that explains the energy behind growth. To take the best possible way afterwards is a nice trick of nature to really accomplish things and get things done.
    So I would like to decide to have a girlfriend and only later decide which one is best for me :) and of course using the fastest way home and making the most money, while having the most vacation and fun.

    What kind of laser was that? I want one :)

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