Plants ‘seen doing quantum physics’

The idea that plants make use of quantum physics to harvest light more efficiently has received a boost. Plants gather packets of light called photons, shuttling them deep into their cells where their energy is converted with extraordinary efficiency.

A report in Science journal adds weight to the idea that an effect called a “coherence” helps determine the most efficient path for the photons. Experts have called the work “a nice proof” of some contentious ideas. Prior work has shown weaker evidence that these coherences existed in relatively large samples from plants.But the new study has been done painstakingly, aiming lasers at single molecules of the light-harvesting machinery to show how light is funnelled to the so-called reaction centres within plants where light energy is converted into chemical energy.

buttercupWhat has surprised even the researchers behind the research is not only that these coherences do indeed exist, but that they also seem to change character, always permitting photons to take the most efficient path into the reaction centres. Until very recently, quantum mechanics – a frequently arcane branch of physics most often probed in laboratory settings at the coldest temperatures and lowest pressures – would not have been expected in biological settings.

The fact that plants and animals are extremely warm and soft by comparison would suggest that delicate quantum states should disappear in living things, leaving behaviour explicable by the more familiar “classical physics” that is taught in school. But the new results join the ranks of a field that seems finally to be gaining ground: quantum biology. More here Plants ‘seen doing quantum physics’.

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