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Quantum effects help cells capture light, but the details are obscure

Ultrashort laser pulses reveal that 'coherence' plays a subtle role in energy transfers

American Institute of Biological Sciences

Sophisticated recent experiments with ultrashort laser pulses support the idea that intuition-defying quantum interactions between molecules help plants, algae, and some bacteria efficiently gather light to fuel their growth. But key details of nature's vital light-harvesting mechanisms remain obscure, and the exact role that quantum physics may play in understanding them is more subtle than was once thought, according to an Overview Article in the January issue of BioScience.

The article, by Jessica M. Anna and Gregory D. Scholes of the University of Toronto and Rienk van Grondelle of Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, describes experiments that employ a technique called 2-D electronic spectroscopy. Researchers flash laser pulses at the light-harvesting protein molecules of bacteria and algae, timed to within a billionth of a billionth of a second, then observe how the energized molecules re-emit light of different colors in the ensuing instants. This allows investigators to deduce how energy is stored by and moves among the molecules. But the results would be impossible to explain if captured light energy were conveyed by discrete entities moving randomly between molecules. Rather, the insights of quantum mechanics are needed.

Quantum mechanics envisages particles as being smeared over regions of space, rather than being pointlike, and as interfering with each other like waves. The smearing is undetectable in everyday life, but the experimental results indicate that, within arrays of light-harvesting molecules that serve as light "antennas" inside cells, such "coherence" eases ultrafast energy transfers that help organisms use solar energy. It thus allows life to pervade the planet, using the process known as photosynthesis to extract carbon dioxide from the air.

Yet Anna and her colleagues point out that the molecular details of the light-gathering apparatus have evolved very differently in different species, so there is nothing simple about how organisms exploit quantum coherence. Indeed, coherence, contrary to what some researchers have speculated, does not seem to dominate light gathering by providing an express route for conveying energy from where it is first captured to the chemical reaction center where it is used. Instead, Anna and her colleagues write, researchers should "inquire how coherence on short length and time scales might seed some kind of property or function" in light-gathering systems. Such understanding might help scientists devise environmentally friendly solar technologies that could regulate their rate of energy input and redistribute and repair their components when the need arises, as living cells do.


BioScience, published monthly by Oxford Journals, is the journal of the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS). BioScience is a forum for integrating the life sciences that publishes commentary and peer-reviewed articles. The journal has been published since 1964. AIBS is a meta-level organization for professional scientific societies and organizations that are involved with biology. It represents nearly 160 member societies and organizations. Follow BioScience on Twitter @AIBS_BioScience.

Oxford Journals is a division of Oxford University Press. Oxford Journals publishes well over 300 academic and research journals covering a broad range of subject areas, two-thirds of which are published in collaboration with learned societies and other international organizations. The division has been publishing journals for more than a century, and as part of the world's oldest and largest university press, has more than 500 years of publishing expertise behind it. Follow Oxford Journals on Twitter @OxfordJournals.

The article by Anna, Scholes, and van Grondelle and other peer-reviewed articles in the January 2014 issue of BioScience are now published as Advance Access at The complete list is as follows:

Changing Ecosystem Dynamics in the Laurentian Great Lakes: Bottom-Up and Top-Down Regulation by David B. Bunnell, Richard P. Barbiero, Stuart A. Ludsin, Charles P. Madenjian, Glenn J. Warren, David M. Dolan, Travis O. Brenden, Ruth Briland, Owen T. Gorman, Ji X. He, Thomas H. Johengen, Brian F. Lantry, Barry M. Lesht, Thomas F. Nalepa, Stephen C. Riley, Catherine M. Riseng, Ted J. Treska, Iyob Tsehaye, Maureen G. Walsh, David M. Warner, and Brian C. Weidel

A Little Coherence in Photosynthetic Light Harvesting by Jessica M. Anna, Gregory D. Scholes, and Rienk van Grondelle

Improving Higher-Order Thinking and Knowledge Retention in Environmental Science Teaching by Marion Dresner, Catherine de Rivera, Kerissa Fuccillo, and Heejun Chang

Linking Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services: Current Uncertainties and the Necessary Next Steps by Patricia Balvanera, Ilyas Siddique, Laura Dee, Alain Paquette, Forest Isbell, Andrew Gonzalez, Jarrett Byrnes, Mary I. O'Connor, Bruce A. Hungate, and John N. Griffin

Broadening the Case for Invasive Species Management to Include Impacts on Ecosystem Services by Jennifer L. Funk, Virginia Matzek, Matthew Bernhardt, and Doug Johnson

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