The Sciences

Quantum Photosynthesis

Cosmic VarianceBy Sean CarrollFeb 5, 2010 1:22 PM


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This is an idea that has been bouncing around for a while, but is now apparently seen in experiments: real-world photosynthesis taking advantage of quantum mechanics. (Story in Wired, via @symmetrymag. Here's the Nature paper on which it's all based.)

The idea is both simple and awesome: you want to transport energy through an "antenna protein" in a plant cell to the "reaction-center proteins" where it is chemically converted into something useful for the rest of the plant. Obviously you'd like to transport that energy in the most efficient way possible, but you're in a warm and wet environment where losses are to be expected. But the plants somehow manage the nearly impossible, of sending the energy with nearly perfect efficiency through the judicious use of quantum mechanics. We can think about this in terms of Feynman's way of talking about quantum mechanics: rather than a particle taking a unique path between two points, as in classical mechanics, a quantum particle takes every possible path, with simple paths getting a bit more weight than complicated ones. In the case of the protein, different paths for the energy might be more or less efficient at any particular moment, but this bit of quantum trickery allows the energy to find the best possible route at any one time. Imagine at rush hour, if your car could take every possible route from your home to the office, and the time it officially took would be whatever turned out to be the shortest path. How awesome would that be? The reason you can't do that is that your car is a giant macroscopic object that can't really be in two places at once, even though the world is governed by quantum mechanics at a deep level. And the reason for that is decoherence -- even if you tried to put your car into a superposition of "take the freeway" and "take the local roads," it is constantly interacting with the outside world, which "collapses the wave function" and keeps your car looking extremely classical. Proteins in plants aren't as big as cars, but they're still made of a very large number of atoms, and they're constantly bumping into other molecules around them. That's why it's amazing that they can actually maintain quantum coherence long enough to pull off this energy-transport trick. Previous studies had hinted at the possibility, but only by cooling the proteins down and shielding them from external jiggling. This new work happens at room temperature in the context of marine algae, so it seems to indicate that it can happen in real environments. One step closer to building my teleportation machine. Get to work, quantum engineers!

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