Scientists still struggle to understand and harness the spooky physics of quantum mechanics, but nature may have a head start on us humans. Tiny marine algae apparently use the mysterious phenomenon called superposition — where a particle can be in two places at the same time — to move around solar energy they harvest through the process of photosynthesis.
This astounding find suggests that biological creatures may have adapted quantum mechanics for survival billions of years ago. It also demonstrates that quantum mechanics can prevail over classical physics even at normal temperatures, given that the algae can send energy flowing through several alternate biological paths simultaneously.
“We were astonished to find clear evidence of long-lived quantum mechanical states involved in moving the energy,” said Greg Scholes, a chemist at the University of Toronto and lead author on the research published in this week’s issue of the journal Nature.
Algae and other plants harvest their daily energy requirements from sunlight. Scholes and his team studied the light-harvesting protein complexes within algae by using laser pulses to mimic absorption of sunlight. They then monitored the energy’s movement by using electronic spectroscopy and a stopwatch.
Many different research groups have studied how to harness quantum mechanics for the purpose of creating quantum computers that could prove far more efficient at both information processing and storage, and even Google has gotten in on that action. Now scientists may increasingly turn to the natural world for examples from the emerging field of quantum biology.