University of Chicago

March 9, 2021

Photosynthetic organisms harvest light from the sun to produce the energy they need to survive. A new paper published by University of Chicago researchers reveals their secret: exploiting quantum mechanics.

“Before this study, the scientific community saw quantum signatures generated in biological systems and asked the question: Were these results just a consequence of biology being built from molecules, or did they have a purpose?” said Greg Engel, Professor of Chemistry and senior author on the study. “This is the first time we are seeing biology actively exploiting quantum effects.”

The scientists studied a type of microorganism called green sulfur bacteria. These bacteria need light to survive, but even small amounts of oxygen can damage their delicate photosynthetic equipment. So they must develop ways to minimize the damage when the bacterium does encounter oxygen.

To study this process, researchers tracked the movement of energy through a photosynthetic protein under different conditions—with oxygen around, and without.

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