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Lauren Admire | 8 Feb 2010 21:00

Quantum Mechanics Found in Plants

Plants absorb 1017 joules of solar energy per second - and can harvest as much as 95 percent of it from the light they absorb through photosynthesis. Plants are remarkably efficient at harnessing energy from sunlight and it's likely because they have a few tricks up their stems - a few quantum tricks, that is.

Scientists from the University of Toronto studied light-harvesting complexes, special proteins that play a key role in photosynthesis. These complexes funnel energy from sunlight into the plant's solar cells, which are other proteins called reaction centers.

Greg Scholes, lead author of the study, isolated a few of these light-harvesting complexes from marine algae and stimulated them with incredibly quick laser pulses in order to mimic the absorption of sunlight. The researchers tracked the flow of energy as it traveled through the algae's photosynthetic system, and noticed something peculiar. Energy from the laser pulse resides in two places at once - a state of superposition. "We always thought of it as hopping through the system, the same way that you or I might run through a maze of bushes," explained Gregory Engels, a biophysicist whom completed a similar experiment in 2007. "But, instead of coming to an intersection and going left or right, it can actually go in both directions at once and explore many different paths most efficiently."

"It means that quantum mechanical probability laws can prevail over the classical laws of kinetics in this complex biological system, even at normal temperatures," explains Scholes. "The energy can thereby flow efficiently by -counter intuitively - traversing several alternative paths through the antenna proteins simultaneously. It suggests that algae knew about quantum mechanics two billion years before humans."

So, what does that mean? Well, first of all, it means I'm surprised that algae aren't the dominant species (I, for one, would welcome our algae overlords). Secondly, it means that plants are using the basic principles of quantum mechanics to transfer energy.

However, it's still unknown how exactly they are able to do this. "[The protein structure] of the plant has to be tuned to allow transfer among chromophores but not to allow transfers into [heat]," states Engels. "How that tuning works and how it is controlled, we don't know."

Source: Science Daily


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