A UNSW Australia-led team of researchers has discovered how algae that survive in very low levels of light are able to switch on and off a weird quantum phenomenon that occurs during photosynthesis.
The function in the algae of this quantum effect, known as coherence, remains a mystery, but it is thought it could help them harvest energy from the sun much more efficiently. Working out its role in a living organism could lead to technological advances, such as better organic solar cells and quantum-based electronic devices.
The research is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
It is part of an emerging field called quantum biology, in which evidence is growing that quantum phenomena are operating in nature, not just the laboratory, and may even account for how birds can navigate using the earth's magnetic field.
"We studied tiny single-celled algae called cryptophytes that thrive in the bottom of pools of water, or under thick ice, where very little light reaches them," says senior author, Professor Paul Curmi, of the UNSW School of Physics.
"Most cryptophytes have a light-harvesting system where quantum coherence is present. But we have found a class of cryptophytes where it is switched off because of a genetic mutation that alters the shape of a light-harvesting protein.
"This is a very exciting find. It means we will be able to uncover the role of quantum coherence in photosynthesis by comparing organisms with the two different types of proteins."
In the weird world of quantum physics, a system that is coherent – with all quantum waves in step with each other – can exist in many different states simultaneously, an effect known as superposition. This phenomenon is usually only observed under tightly controlled laboratory conditions.
So the team, which includes Professor Gregory Scholes from the University of Toronto in Canada, was surprised to discover in 2010 that the transfer of energy between molecules in the light harvesting systems from two different cryptophyte species was coherent.
The same effect has been found in green sulphur bacteria that also survive in very low light levels.
"The assumption is that this could increase the efficiency of photosynthesis, allowing the algae and bacteria to exist on almost no light," says Professor Curmi.
"Once a light-harvesting protein has captured sunlight, it needs to get that trapped energy to the reaction centre in the cell as quickly as possible, where the energy is converted into chemical energy for the organism.
"It was assumed the energy gets to the reaction centre in a random fashion, like a drunk staggering home. But quantum coherence would allow the energy to test every possible pathway simultaneously before travelling via the quickest route."
In the new study, the team used x-ray crystallography to work out the crystal structure of the light-harvesting complexes from three different species of cryptophytes.
They found that in two species a genetic mutation has led to the insertion of an extra amino acid that changes the structure of the protein complex, disrupting coherence.
"This shows cryptophytes have evolved an elegant but powerful genetic switch to control coherence and change the mechanisms used for light harvesting," says Professor Curmi.
The next step will be to compare the biology of different cryptophytes, such as whether they inhabit different environmental niches, to work out whether the quantum coherence effect is assisting their survival.
The team was led by UNSW's Dr Stephen Harrop and Dr Krystyna Wilk and includes researchers from the University of Toronto, the University of Padua, the University of British Columbia, the
University of Cologne and Macquarie University.
Professor Paul Curmi: + 612 9385 4552, email@example.com
UNSW Science media officer: Deborah Smith, + 612 9385 7307, +61 (0) 478 492 060, firstname.lastname@example.org
Deborah Smith | Eurek Alert!
Unique genome architectures after fertilisation in single-cell embryos
30.03.2017 | IMBA - Institut für Molekulare Biotechnologie der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften GmbH
Transport of molecular motors into cilia
28.03.2017 | Aarhus University
The Institute of Semiconductor Technology and the Institute of Physical and Theoretical Chemistry, both members of the Laboratory for Emerging Nanometrology (LENA), at Technische Universität Braunschweig are partners in a new European research project entitled ChipScope, which aims to develop a completely new and extremely small optical microscope capable of observing the interior of living cells in real time. A consortium of 7 partners from 5 countries will tackle this issue with very ambitious objectives during a four-year research program.
To demonstrate the usefulness of this new scientific tool, at the end of the project the developed chip-sized microscope will be used to observe in real-time...
Astronomers from Bonn and Tautenburg in Thuringia (Germany) used the 100-m radio telescope at Effelsberg to observe several galaxy clusters. At the edges of these large accumulations of dark matter, stellar systems (galaxies), hot gas, and charged particles, they found magnetic fields that are exceptionally ordered over distances of many million light years. This makes them the most extended magnetic fields in the universe known so far.
The results will be published on March 22 in the journal „Astronomy & Astrophysics“.
Galaxy clusters are the largest gravitationally bound structures in the universe. With a typical extent of about 10 million light years, i.e. 100 times the...
Researchers at the Goethe University Frankfurt, together with partners from the University of Tübingen in Germany and Queen Mary University as well as Francis Crick Institute from London (UK) have developed a novel technology to decipher the secret ubiquitin code.
Ubiquitin is a small protein that can be linked to other cellular proteins, thereby controlling and modulating their functions. The attachment occurs in many...
In the eternal search for next generation high-efficiency solar cells and LEDs, scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory and their partners are creating...
Silicon nanosheets are thin, two-dimensional layers with exceptional optoelectronic properties very similar to those of graphene. Albeit, the nanosheets are less stable. Now researchers at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) have, for the first time ever, produced a composite material combining silicon nanosheets and a polymer that is both UV-resistant and easy to process. This brings the scientists a significant step closer to industrial applications like flexible displays and photosensors.
Silicon nanosheets are thin, two-dimensional layers with exceptional optoelectronic properties very similar to those of graphene. Albeit, the nanosheets are...
20.03.2017 | Event News
14.03.2017 | Event News
07.03.2017 | Event News
30.03.2017 | Health and Medicine
30.03.2017 | Health and Medicine
30.03.2017 | Medical Engineering