Quantum Mechanics and Algae


Summer 2010 Issue

Quantum effects in Photosynthesis

Quantum Mechanics and Algae

It is now believed that the microscopic organisms in algae use an important property of quantum mechanics to boost the efficiency of the photosynthesis process. Researchers performed a series of experiments on cryptophytes, algae that inhabits marine and freshwater environments, by firing ultrafast, low-power laser pulses at the molecular antennas of the algae (the antennas are responsible for intercepting photons and channeling energy to reaction centers), and then measuring the changes in light energy. They found that the antenna molecules transferred energy to the reaction-center molecules through electron vibration at full strength four times longer than expected. The reason? Quantum mechanics controls the energy. Gregory Scholes, physical chemist and co-author of the findings at the University of Toronto in Canada, explains that the behavior of the algae is called quantum coherence. In layman’s terms: the molecular structure of the antennas converts incoming light into a wave, which can travel to the reaction center without losing energy. Scholes further states, “It shows that quantum effects can influence biological function.” Experts believe the discovery will open up a new field of research, and could lead to a new generation of superefficient light-sensitive devices.

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This article appeared in the Summer 2010 ISSUE,

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Will there be a day when we will think of a technology that does not already occur in nature?

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