September 16, 2004 | David F. Coppedge

Plants Use Quantum Mechanics to Harvest Light

In a News and Views item in Nature Sept. 16,1 Graham R. Fleming (UC Berkeley) and Gregory R. Scholes (U Toronto) explain how the light-harvesting centers of plant photosynthetic organs take advantage of quantum mechanics to focus energy on their reaction centers.  Their illustration shows a chromophore diagram from a photosynthetic bacterium.  Understanding energy transfer at the quantum level in plants has solved some “long-standing mysteries” of photosynthesis, they say:

Paradoxically, for instance, it has emerged that the same interactions that produce perfectly efficient energy transport also allow photosynthetic organisms to construct molecular safety valves that dissipate excess excitation energy that would otherwise cause irreversible damage.  Furthermore, this work has shown how photosynthetic systems exploit energetic disorder to improve spectral coverage, and reduce energy mismatches to make the system exceedingly robust against thermal and structural variations. (Emphasis added.)


1Fleming and Scholes, “Physical chemistry: Quantum mechanics for plants,” Nature 431, 256 – 257 (16 September 2004); doi:10.1038/431256a.

I struggled with basic QM at the university.  Don’t tell me a bacterium figured out graduate-level quantum mechanical engineering on its own.

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Categories: Amazing Facts

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