Structure of the Fenna–Matthews–Olson pigment–protein complex that is found in green sulphur bacteria.
(Courtesy: Daniel Cole)

Proteins boost quantum coherence in bacteria

Jan 11, 2013

A new theory of how plant photosynthesis involves quantum coherence has been suggested by physicists in the UK, Germany and Spain. This latest research is based on the study of organisms that live deep under the sea yet are able to convert sunlight into energy. The study suggests that molecular vibrations do not destroy the coherence – as previously thought – but rather perpetuate and even regenerate coherence. The discovery could lead to a better understanding how plants achieve as high as 99% efficiency in converting sunlight to energy, as well as the possibility of using nature-inspired designs in quantum devices.

Until recently, living systems were thought to be “too wet and warm” to rely on delicate quantum properties such as entanglement and coherence. The problem is that these properties decay rapidly via random interactions with things in the outside world, such as vibrating molecules. However, over the past decade physicists have begun to suspect that quantum properties play important roles in biochemical processes – including photosynthesis.

This latest work was done by Alex Chin (now at Cambridge University) and colleagues at the Institute of Theoretical Physics in Ulm and the Technical University of Cartagena. The team looked at organisms called green sulphur bacteria that live 2000 m below the ocean surface. There is so little sunlight down there that the bacteria cannot afford to lose a single photon – indeed, almost 100% of the light they absorb is turned into food.

Read more: Proteins boost quantum coherence in bacteria – physics world.

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