In the traditional view of photosynthesis, the energy carried by photons streaming from the sun is transferred by bouncing from one chlorophyll molecule to the next, a process that ultimately builds simple carbohydrates from water and carbon dioxide. But last spring, a team led by Graham Fleming, deputy director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, reported that the process is much more interesting than that.
Using ultrafast lasers, they found that the interaction between the sun’s energy and the chlorophyll molecules in a bacterium relies on a piece of quantum mechanical weirdness known as superposition, where a single photon’s energy can temporarily be in many different states at once. This allows photosynthesis to probe all the possible reaction pathways within the various chlorophyll molecules. The most efficient pathway is selected and energy is transferred through the bacterium as the superposition collapses.
“This is similar to quantum computing in some sense,” says Greg Engel, a member of Fleming’s team. “This is how quantum computing realizes its incredible efficiency and its ability to solve very complex problems, because it can evaluate many solutions at once.”
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